Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering

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Living in a Food Desert

I was surprised recently to discover that I live in a “food desert.” I’ve mentioned food deserts before, when I lived and gardened in Silver City, but never thought I would live in one. Our food desert is evidently the fastest growing area in southern Arizona, but we have to drive a dozen miles to shop in a “full service grocery store” rather than a convenience market. This issue—lack of access to fresh, healthy food—is usually considered a problem in older urban areas, not fast-growing suburban neighborhoods, but it seems these deserts come in all shapes and sizes.

I had considered the grocery-store drive to be an inconvenience, but I had not considered how difficult it might be for folks with limited means. Imagine for a moment a young family that’s just managing payments on the house and one car, which is needed for one parent to drive to work. The other is stuck at home with the kids, without a car. There’s limited bus service in our area, so grocery shopping would involve at least one bus transfer and a walk to and from our neighborhood. Even the drive to the grocery store, if a car is available, can become quite an expense over time, despite relatively low gas prices.

IMG_5922And yet…I also found myself thinking about how the Native Americans had managed to survive in this desert for hundreds of years before the rest of us showed up. Prickly pear cacti are everywhere here, and currently sporting bright red fruits, which I have, in the past, harvested and transformed into pretty tasty jam and ice cream. The prickly pear cactus pads are also edible, and mesquite seeds have been ground into high-nutrient flour for hundreds of years. If I did want to trap rabbits or compete with local hawks for abundant dove and quail, I could have meat to eat. I know I am capable of growing vegetables in the desert—in fact, it’s the only climate in which I’ve ever gardened!

So part of the issue with food deserts is our perspective on them. Last week I talked about Weird Church and the desire to develop new, radical responses to the decline of traditional churches. One story discussed in the book was of a “roving listener” who moved into an urban neighborhood, listening with an open heart, and began to connect people who had common interests. He discovered that there were forty-five backyard gardeners—people like me—in the midst of an urban food desert. He brought them together over a shared meal—keeping with the food theme!—and subsequent monthly gatherings led to the birth of a growers’ market in that neighborhood. Talk about truly sacramental sharing!

While our neighborhood here is pushing for a more traditional solution to the problem—that “full service grocery store”—and I am not feeling called to start a growers’ market here (we do need to listen for “what is ours to do”), I share this story because I believe that there are people who are called, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to do such things, and I wish to fully support them in living out their call.

I invite you to take some time with God in prayer this week and ask what is yours to do, in terms of sharing the Good News and connecting people in community to do new things.


Unintended Consequences in Our Transportation Industry

Last weekend I returned to Silver City for a few days. I visited friends, hiked in the mountains, and gave a presentation of some photos and stories of our time in Israel at the church I used to attend. (Want to join us for a Holy Land tour of Israel this coming January? Find out more here.)

DSC_8559eOn the drive from Tucson to Silver City, I passed this amazing sight. It’s hard to tell from this photo, but there are almost three hundred train locomotives, stored end-to-end, on an unused siding alongside the Interstate. Reading up on this, I discovered that the Southern Pacific Railroad is using “Aridzona” to store unused engines. Our state’s humidity is generally very low—except during the current monsoon season—making it an ideal place to mothball both airplanes and locomotives.

So why, in an economy that’s supposedly booming, are so many engines parked here? It turns out that another of the unintended consequences of the success of fracking natural gas has been a decline in our railroads. Railroads have, for decades, been used to haul coal. In fact, coal has historically been the railroads’ largest single revenue source. We know—from our contentious political election cycle last year, if nothing else—that the coal industry is in serious decline. Natural gas is much more efficiently transported via pipeline, and the increase in oil pipelines as well (including the incredibly contentious Dakota Access Pipeline) had also cut railroad oil transport by 22% in 2016.

Railroads built this country. My paternal great-grandfather worked for the railroad, and the pursuit of trains still drives many of the details of my parents’ vacation plans. But things are changing in this country. The rail lines that used to form the backbone of our nation’s transportation industry no longer do so. Transportation now takes place via pipelines, power lines, and—in this increasingly service-based economy—internet lines.

I know this is a rather big shift, but I see a similar transition taking place in the church in this country. I’m currently reading a book called Weird Church, which discusses the decline in the institutional church, in America and around the world, and proposes a rather radical response. It is fact that many in our younger generations are not keen on the idea of belonging to one church and giving money to support a building and programs and clergy salaries. They are still curious, even desirous, of a spiritual life and a relationship with God, but the ways that worked for prior generations don’t work for them.

So it’s time to discover new ways to “transport” Christianity to the spiritually hungry. In their exploration of what it means to be church these days, Weird Church leaders propose returning to the roots—which is what the word “radical” means, at its root(!)—of Christianity. They pose a question that I really like: What did the disciples do the day after Pentecost? Having been inspired by the Holy Spirit, these earliest Christians moved into “liminal space,” where “the Jesus movement began to spread and to innovate on the fly; creativity came to life.”

There are many ways in which Christianity is being revitalized in this country—but most of them don’t look like the church we’re used to seeing. Christianity is being “transported” in new ways, and I am excited to be a member of a team of spiritual directors that will be gathering with Weird Church practitioners at Weird Church Camp, the end of this month, to share stories and experiences and listen for how the Holy Spirit is calling us all to innovate in this day and age.

I invite you to pray for us, as we prepare for camp and gather in community, like the early Christians, to revision what church looks like in a constantly changing world. How are we called to transport Christianity to the spiritually hungry today?

How are you called to transport Christianity to the spiritually hungry today?

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What We Put Aside

Recently I’ve found myself pondering the various writing-project ideas that I’ve generated over the years. A couple weeks ago, I decided to see if I could gather them all into one place, one list. I started going through various electronic files and discovered that I could list twenty different ideas that resided in my computer or my head (and I still haven’t dipped into the older paper files in my office!). In the process I discovered that, in some cases, significant work had been undertaken to bring those ideas to fruition. When I shared this fact with one friend of mine, her response was, “That means you’re a writer.”

DSC_3031 invert hue flashlight heal brush darkerThat may well be true. It also means I haven’t always been very faithful to my craft. I’ve let a lot of ideas linger in obscurity for a lot of years. Admittedly, some of them probably don’t need to see the light of day—or at least they don’t seem worthy of attention at this point. Others, however, I find of great value, here and now—worth my attention, my effort, to see if I can, at some level, bring them into the light.

Part of the reason I’m looking to do this is that I am finally actively working with someone on the development of a website. We have a rough draft of a home page “mocked up” and we’re talking about offerings that I might share with my various communities, including you—readers of my blog. I actually have already drafted a free ebook that I will offer when the website goes live, as an incentive for people to connect with me and engage with more of my spiritual reflections—my prayerful pondering.

One of the gifts of dipping back into the various writing projects I’d put aside was discovering that, in the months leading up to when I finally started blogging, I had, in essence, begun honing the craft. I’ve spent time this past week re-reading a series of meditations on the life of prayer and discovering that they are just as relevant today as they were four years ago…and that they do contribute to what I have to offer. Some of them, in fact, may make an appearance on this blog in the coming months.

Others are likely to form the backbone of an ebook in which I ponder the exercise of prayer from the perspective of photographer and observer. We’ll see; it’s still unfolding, but a draft introduction flew off my fingers this week, which to me is a sign that the Spirit is at work in bringing to light what has dwelt too long in darkness. (I also found myself awake at 3 am one morning, beginning to think through the tax-gathering and filing consequences of moving from offering only services to offering goods as well!)

I may never know all the reasons why I’ve let these ideas languish, although I have some theories. What feels important to me at this point is that there is gold, in the form of lived-and-learned wisdom, buried in the darkness. It needs to be brought into the light. It is part of my calling at this stage in my life. I am trusting that God will guide me, lead me, so that what I have to offer may be of value to those who walk the spiritual path, serve others, and seek to bring hope to a world in need of Good News.

What parts of yourself, your wisdom, your experience, have languished in the darkness? How might you be called, in this season, to bring that precious gold into the light?


Dancing beyond Duality

The church I attend has a midweek gathering devoted to two types of prayer. We begin with a check-in, then do Centering Prayer for twenty minutes, then conclude with Lectio Divina, where we read a passage three times, asking ourselves specific questions about how we’re responding to the reading. I find it helpful to do both these exercises in a group, as the energy of the group supports my prayer and the responses of others in Lectio Divina enrich my own.

Recently the reading was Romans 7:15–25. I immediately felt my soul resonating with the very first sentences: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” As I continue to prioritize and make choices about participating in a broad range of opportunities in my life, I often find myself making choices that, in hindsight, are not helpful or healthy for me. It’s an age-old conundrum that I would imagine resonates in your heart and soul as well.

Reading further, we can find ourselves caught up in the Apostle Paul’s legalistic language and tendencies, and that was where our group spent much of our time. We struggled with Paul’s dualistic hate for what he calls “the flesh,” which we felt is part of God’s creation just as much as the spirit, what Paul calls “the inmost self.” We wrestled with Paul’s law-based framework and found ourselves discussing the differences between Jesus and Paul.

Paul had a legalistic background and training, and it appears he spent much of his time constructing a “theology,” a structured set of beliefs about the nature of God, Jesus, and humanity. This is in pretty stark contrast to Jesus, whose parables were much more focused on addressing a concrete, immediate reality in his listeners’ lives. Jesus was much more interested in our lived experience of God, rather than in constructing a framework upon which to hang laws about living with God.

This prior paragraph, of course, illustrates dualistic thinking: I either approach life like Paul, or like Jesus. Interestingly, in the early centuries of Christianity, churches tended toward Paul. They established hierarchies (priests, bishops) and religious rules/laws about how to create and sustain Christian community. In contrast, early mystics like the Desert Mothers and Fathers left such law-based life behind, moved out into the Egyptian desert, and set up a collection of hermitages where they told stories (parables) to help each next generation learn about our lived experience of God.

All this relates to how I am seeking to live out this idea of a podcast on hope. I’ve written recently about my tendency to “go it alone,” and that has applied to my thoughts about this podcast as well. As I’ve delved into the nuts and bolts about podcasting, I’ve realized that I cannot do this alone. There simply isn’t enough time and energy available. My initial response was, “Well, then I won’t do it,” but I couldn’t reconcile that reaction with the very clear way that God brought this idea into my life. I found myself feeling caught in the duality of yes/no and I just couldn’t see a way forward.

DOS Hands cropThen God provided me with some conversations and a dream that together helped me to see a third way. I realized that Yes was one end of a spectrum and No was the other—it wasn’t a duality, but a multiplicity of possibilities. Hanging out in the middle of that spectrum was “Yes, and.” In this case, “and” means collaborators. I need to reach out, in and through my various communities, to find organizations willing to take on this dream and help me make it a reality.

In the past, I admit I haven’t been a very good collaborator. I was taught at a young age that success only meant “success at the highest pinnacle of achievement.” As a result, I’m far too perfectionistic and have a tendency to say, “My way or not at all.” That usually means I end up doing all the work. I tend to think I’m happier that way, but that likely isn’t true, and it also means that many of my ideas never see the light of day. I don’t follow through—due to that lack of time and energy to achieve “perfect” results—and those ideas fall into an abyss. Maybe God then picks them up and hands them to others…I hope so. Today, I am also learning to grieve that necessity.

What I’ve recently realized is that, for such ideas to manifest in the world and make a difference, I have to let go of my need for control and perfection. I have to release the concept that ideas are “mine” and recognize that they came first from the mind of my Creator. I have received each one as a gift. Will I hide them away in the dark, letting them perish, or let them out into the light so they can illumine the world?

This week I will be attending a reception of a local organization called Interfaith Community Services. The reception celebrates the milestone of 100 partnering faith communities—quite a testament to collaboration! I intend to walk in with my heart and eyes wide open, hoping to have conversations about the hope podcast and see if anyone is interested in the idea of a collaboration. If so, great! If not, I will see what’s next. One step at a time, I will follow the path and see where it leads. I will release any idea of “mine” and “now” for this podcast idea and let it unfold on a spectrum that God creates rather than a duality I think I control.

I invite you to pray for me in this process, that I can continue to release duality and perfection and welcome whatever comes. I also invite you to consider what dualities you might need to release in your own life.

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When the Spirit Is in Charge….

I have an “only the Holy Spirit could have arranged this” story to share today….

This past week, after my cataract-surgery follow-up appointment (All is well, by the way!), I told Henry I wanted to take a walk in the Tucson Mall, since we were very close and it’s too hot to walk outside. So we did. At one point, we saw a Muslim woman come over to an elevator where folks (including us) were having trouble figuring out how it worked. She didn’t speak with us, and turned away when she saw things were working, but I thought, “That looks like the woman I sat next to at the Iftar meal!”

You see, the night before we embarked on our cross-country, Bugs-on-the-Bumper trip, Henry and I joined a number of folks from my church in accepting an invitation to Iftar, the meal that Muslims eat to break their Ramadan fast. It was a fascinating evening, with delicious food, interesting conversation, and a chance to learn more about the Muslim faith. Toward the end of the evening, the question of sharing cooking classes came up, and I gave the woman my card in the hopes that she’d reach out so we could continue the conversation. I hadn’t heard from her and was feeling a bit disappointed.

DSC_0112 2 butterfliesThen, this week, as I watched the woman walk back to one of those cart-kiosks in the mall, I asked Henry if she looked familiar, and he said he thought so. So we went over and she was, indeed, the woman we had met at Iftar! We had a great conversation—she insisted on treating us (her “hospitality”) to coffee at the Starbucks right there by the carts, and we sat and talked where she could keep an eye on her cart. As I had learned during our meal together, E is from Turkey, and she’s here to learn English so that she can study for her doctorate back home. The kiosk job gives her a chance to practice her English.

We talked about a number of things, including the possibility of cooking classes, probably in the fall, since many activities shut down and people leave Tucson during the hot summer months. I was reminded of what Henry and I both felt when we shared that Iftar meal: We are all one human family. We have similar hopes and dreams, and the same deep desire for human connection and community, no matter the differences in our language, culture, and religious traditions.

Before we left, E and I traded contact information so we can keep in touch. I’m curious to see where God will take this clear invitation into relationship, into learning about “the other.” In an increasingly divided culture here in America, I am honored to be taking whatever small steps I can to be part of the One Human Family.

Has God ever handed you just such an “only the Spirit could have arranged this” opportunity? Did you reach out, take the invitation, follow through? How did that experience change/transform/enrich your life? If not, can you commit to keeping your spiritual eyes open for future opportunities?

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Bugs on the Bumper

Earlier this summer, Henry and I traversed this country by car. We drove from Tucson to Boston and Henry returned via the southern US, making a number of genealogy-related stops along the way. It had been years since I’d been on a road trip this long—since we moved from Boston to New Mexico in 2006, in fact.

When I was a child, we took a number of summer road trips: mom and us kids in our blue pickup truck with camper shell, camping our way across most of the contiguous United States over the course of my teen years. This year’s trip was different in a number of ways. For one thing, no one was enforcing seat belt laws when I was a kid, and we bounced around on sleeping bags and a built-in shelf in the back of that covered pickup truck, communicating with our parents through the sliding window in the back of the pickup cab. I find the front seats of our Altima quite restrictive in comparison!

Another thing I don’t remember is all the bugs we killed with our car. Perhaps they were there, and my parents diligently cleaned them off the windshield every time they bought gas, as I did this year. But one night, as we were driving west of Cleveland, I actually thought it was raining because of the volume of bugs hitting the windshield!

DSC_6809One of the songs we heard on the 70s radio station during our trip was “Convoy,” that hilarious song about truckers that includes the reference to cops gathering as thick as “bugs on a bumper.” As you can see here, our car illustrates that image quite well. Henry commented at one point that there might be a blog post in that, and I pulled out my laptop to see what developed.

What initially came to mind is that, if I were Buddhist, I’d be in real trouble, because of their reverence for life and desire to do no harm. Then I thought about how I, as a Christian, prefer to do no harm, either. In fact, reverence for all creatures is behind the robust environmental ministry undertaken by one of my former spiritual directors, Margaret Bullitt-Jonas. She and many others are advocating for the earth because way back in Genesis we were told by God to care for the earth—what Richard Rohr calls “the first Gospel.”

Driving across these United States also really helped to connect me with the states more fully. I had many hours of opportunity to admire this land, to appreciate its variety, its many forms of lush greenery, the picturesque old buildings and innovative new ones. I found myself giving thanks, multiple times, for the opportunity to travel and for the beauty of creation.

But that travel comes at a cost. We consumed quite a bit of fossil fuel on this trip and we killed an awful lot of tiny creatures. (We also saw a lot of larger roadkill, ranging from squirrels and raccoons to a startling number of deer.) It reminds me that our impact on our environment is never straightforward. Every choice we make, every pleasure we take, has consequences. I don’t regret our trip…but it does make me think seriously about how we travel, and how I might somehow atone for that excess here at home. One way I know I do that is through working at home. At least I have a zero-emissions commute!

When have you taken a road trip? What did you notice? Did you remember to give thanks? How might you give thanks for creation by making conscious choices to atone for your use of fossil fuels?


Upright Walking

IMG_4412Recently a friend shared an article on Facebook about the history of church pews. In church buildings, pews are a relatively new invention that likely came about because sermons were getting longer as the Protestants focused more exclusively on the Word. Until the Reformation, people evidently stood in church—or knelt—and the amazingly decorative floors are evidence of that. Even now, if you visit older churches in Europe or the Holy Land, you can see that they’ve simply installed a number of chairs for modern visitors in a large, otherwise empty nave.

IMG_4477I found myself thinking about that in terms of my experience at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where few people were seated. There was a lot of walking around, and there were a few places (presumably for the elderly or infirm) to sit, but the energy of the church was more about movement. We stood, we knelt and prayed, we lit candles, we stood some more.

I’m guessing that worship in the early church was much more likely to be active, to be upright. I could well imagine early Christians asking us, “Why would you sit in church? You should be kneeling and standing and praising and eating and going out to do good work in the world. The church is not a place of rest, it’s a place of challenge and inspiration.”

I also found myself thinking that a species who spent generations evolving to stand should not be so quick to sit. When you sit, you can’t respond quickly. When you sit, you’re not on your guard, and for most of human history, humans were hunted (as much as hunters) and did have to “stand guard.” Learning to walk upright was a huge step in the right direction. Why sit now?

Then there’s the other meaning of upright—not in terms of physical stature, but in terms of the spiritual life. How do we walk uprightly, as a spiritual practice, when we spend all our God-time sitting? How do we understand ourselves as upright when we only have our gazes focused downward, toward our own navels or worship-books, or toward the front of the church, as spectators? The idea of God as “watching over us” really begs the question of what we’re doing, sitting on our tails, when we are called to be servants, living out our faith.

How are we called to upright walking in this day and age? How is God calling us to not fold inward, back into an ape-like existence, where our safety is what matters, where our focus is on ourselves?

How do you walk upright? How might you, figuratively and literally, transform the sedentary posture of today’s church worship into the active life in Christ?