Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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Pointing the Way


I collect nativity sets. I don’t really remember how it started, or which one came first, but I’ve ended up with close to twenty of them, large and small. This week, we pulled a number of them out of boxes in the garage and set them up on the bar-height counter in our kitchen, where they can remind us of the Incarnation every time we walk through the house.

IMG_7063Like so much in this Advent season, these crèches are meant to point the way to the Christ child. They are representative interpretations of the scene on the night of Jesus’ birth, but each one is different. Some are very lifelike, while others are more abstractly representational. Many are decorated with the specific designs, clothing, and faces of the cultures where they were created. At this point, I have nativity sets from around the world, ranging from as far away as Africa and the Middle East (the one pictured here, which we picked up in Bethlehem in January) and as close as the Native American pueblos near where I grew up.

We are as different as these nativity sets, but each of us are created to point toward God, in our own way. Each of us are called, with Isaiah, to “prepare the way of the Lord.” We might be called to make paths straight, or rough places smooth, or to raise valleys and bulldoze down hills that prevent others from seeing and embracing the God of Love who came to live among us. We do this through our own lives, using the specific—even unique—blend of God-given gifts and human-cultivated skills that have made us the children of God that we are.

We might do this through crafting nativity sets or by composing letters to our congressional representatives. We could do this by volunteering at a shelter or fundraising in support of those less fortunate than ourselves. We can do this, day in and day out, with kind words, generous gestures, and simple acts that prove we believe every child on earth to be a child of God—and perhaps even Jesus in disguise.

How are you called to point the way, to concretely live out Christ’s Incarnation in this last full week of Advent?

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Testifying to the Light


I’m spending these closing weeks of the year taking a mental step back from being “in the thick of things” with my work and ministry. I’ve felt overwhelmed at various times this year and, as I’ve noted, not everything has “worked out” as I imagined or hoped it would. I would like to feel more “in sync” with my work and ministry in 2018, so I am intentionally taking time to reflect, listen, pray, and ponder.

Some images and ideas are arising as a result. Interestingly, perhaps in part because of the work I’ve been doing for the online Advent retreat, the role of John the Baptist has been coming to mind. John 1:6–9 says that John the Baptist came to “testify to the light” that was coming into the world. It also says clearly that John was not the light; his job was to testify—to tell others about that Light of Christ.

Layout 1I’m finding this understanding to be in quite stark contrast to the marketing and business-growth information that I’ve received through multiple channels as I’ve worked to grow my business and ministry over the years. Everything is about getting your brand, your name, out in front of people, in an increasingly overcrowded market and cacophonous online world.

One of the realities that is arising to my awareness is a sometimes-overwhelming sense of exhaustion, perhaps from all that work of putting myself and my brands out there. I do have some results to show for it—but as I look back upon my expanding editing and writer-coach business, most of that expansion has come through word of mouth and connections, rather than any explicit marketing that I’ve been doing. It’s been less about me and more about how I’ve “showed up,” been present, and the quality of the work I’ve done.

I find it ironic that, for a handful of reasons, I still don’t have a live website—although one has been in the works for much of the year now. Perhaps it will be live by the end of the year. Despite that lack of what most marketers would consider a fundamental element of my business, I’m still getting work and opportunities are still arising.

I choose to believe this has happened because of the work of the Spirit. Because I consider my editing and writer-coach work to be a ministry, I believe that the Spirit is guiding that work, so that others can benefit from the gifts and skills given to me by God. It’s not about me—in that ultimate sense—and that’s how I’m making the connection with John the Baptist.

My work is not about me. In what I do most authentically, I am testifying to the Light of the World. My work is about assisting and supporting the work of my clients. God is blessing that ministry, and I am grateful.

Where in your life are you called to testify to the Light of the World?


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What Shall I Ponder?


I’ve been blogging for over four years now, and haven’t missed a week. There’s always something to ponder when we live with intentional awareness of God’s presence and movement in our lives. As I sit down to write today, I’m in a small moment of transition, having sent an edited book manuscript back to the author yesterday and now preparing for the Women Writing the West conference which will be held here in Tucson over the next few days (it will be finished—except for the cleanup—when this post goes live). DSC_7032cI’m grateful for a day with less than the usual number of items on the work checklist, while, at the same time, being well aware that there are lots of personal projects that could use some of my undivided attention.

One of the pieces of wisdom that I’ve been pondering recently came out of my continued exploration of the Enneagram. As I am leading a group at church that’s exploring this ancient spiritual wisdom and learning to apply it to our modern lives, I’m coming to a deeper understanding of it for myself. One of the aspects of my space on the Enneagram circle (the Four) is that I tend to create many more ideas than I follow through on. When I initially read this, I immediately fell into judgment mode, feeling that I was somehow failing because I wasn’t following through on all those great ideas. My struggle with the hope podcast is a good case in point.

However, my spiritual director invited me to see that perhaps I should view this tendency as fact, not judgment. It is fact that some of us create more ideas than we follow through on (the author whose latest book I just finished editing is a good case in point, and he’s a Seven). That doesn’t mean we need immediately to assume we are failing because we do not do so. Sometimes we try things on and they just don’t fit, for whatever reason. Sometimes other things show up to take precedence. Sometimes our job is to get the idea out there so that others can bring it to life. Sometimes we push on, trying to make something work, and eventually realize that it is perhaps going to teach us more through what doesn’t go the way we want instead of what does.

So I am pondering…the books on my desk, waiting to be read; the ideas on my project spreadsheet, awaiting time and attention; and what will be the foci of my work and ministry in 2018, as I seek to discern what God is calling me to bring forth.

As part of that pondering, I have a question for you, my readers. You’ve been reading my ponderings for weeks, or months, or years. What do you wish I’d talk about? What do you want me to explore further? Is there a particular post that has stuck in your mind and heart? I’d like to add your voices to my discernment about how this blog can best serve as a catalyst to enrich and deepen your spiritual life and your walk with God. Please join the conversation.


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Living Now and Not Yet


We all tend to live in multiple worlds. By this, I mean that we tend to spend mental time on the past and the future, even as our bodies dwell in the present. We read or listen about others’ lives—real or imaginary—rather than living our own. We resist “what is,” in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons.

Sometimes it’s less about resistance and more about practicality. As I said last week, I’ve launched an online retreat, The Advent of Jesus through the Eyes of Others, and so I’ve been spending a lot of time focused on the events that took place in that first Advent and Christmastide. I’ve been refining meditations, considering reflection questions, creating fitting activities that will help retreatants connect more deeply with these ancient events through their own modern lives and activities.

I have lost count of the number of times over the years that I’ve explained to people in spiritual guidance that we can only really encounter God in the present moment. If we’re replaying the past or fearing the future, we’re in our heads, not living in the present reality, which is the only place where God can meet us. That is why Centering Prayer and related forms of meditation are about repeatedly bringing us back to the present moment, over and over again. As we learn to return to the present, we learn to return to God, to what is, rather than to what we imagine, one way or another.

So it’s a paradox that I am focusing both on Advent past (Jesus’ birth) and future (online retreat) and on living in this present moment—which involves preparation for the future by reflecting on the past. In this, I recognize another level in my understanding of kairos vs. chronos.IMG_6607

Both these terms are Greek words that have been developed a Christian meaning. Chronos is the root word of our term “chronology” and has the denotation of linear, progressive time, like the time on our watches and calendars. Kairos, on the other hand, speaks to something beyond linear time. It’s a sense of the “right” time, an opportune time, a time beyond measure. It’s our momentary capacity to live beyond our mind’s understanding of linear time. It’s living in the present moment, and somehow understanding that we’re encompassing past and future as well—just as all that we have been and will be are embodied in the same flesh that we inhabit right now.

It’s a brain-teasing understanding that really needs to move beyond “understanding” to a deeper feeling—not unlike what I’m seeking to do for those who join me on this Advent retreat journey. We will dip back into Christian history—and we will live that history in our own time, in our own way. Like with the Reign of God that Jesus sought to proclaim through his ministry, it is already becoming manifest as we speak of it and seek to live it out—and remains elusively “not yet” because it is not fully formed in our still-struggling world.

I invite you to spend some time this week pondering kairos and chronos and your own capacity for accepting what is and living in the present moment.


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Awaiting the Lessons of Failure


One of the teachings from Richard Rohr that has stayed with me over the years is the fact that, after the age of thirty, we learn a lot more from our failures than we do from our successes. I cannot count the number of times that I’ve shared this with friends, colleagues, and people who have met with me for spiritual guidance.

DSC_0023e JerusalemIt’s a truth that certainly isn’t easy to live into—as I’m learning myself right now. As I type this—before dawn on a morning in early October—there are still a dozen days left for Henry and I to sign up more people for our trip to Israel this coming January…and we still need six more people to make a commitment for there to be enough people for the trip to happen. At this point, that does not feel possible. I hate putting those words out there—making it more real, in a sense—but I’m also recognizing that I don’t know where else I would look to find people. We have done what we can to share our excitement and encourage others to join us but, for whatever reasons, this trip just has not filled.

Thus I find myself in a kind of limbo—waiting for a few more days to pass, just in case people who have said no might change their minds, or people who have one of our brochures sitting on their dining room table, where they look at it with longing while eating dinner each night, might decide that they can indeed afford the time and money to make their pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

At this point, whatever lessons God might have for us to learn in this probable failure are not yet apparent to me. I’ve pondered some possibilities, ranging from us not spending enough time on the front end, praying for more clarity about whether God really wanted us to undertake this project, to some unknown future calamity in the Holy Land that would have cancelled the trip at the last minute (which is akin to what happened the first time we tried to go—as pilgrims, not leaders—a handful of years ago).

And so I wait. I wait to see if miracles are in the offing. I wait to see if the potential of failure is sufficient for me to learn some lesson, or whether I need instead to let go, move on to other projects (of which there are many!), and await the clarity of failure’s lessons, which will probably come with a bit of time, distance, and perspective.

What is your relationship with failure? Do you seek its lessons—or have you found that its lessons find you, whether you wish it or not? Do you see God’s hand at work in the failures you’ve experienced in your life?

If you want to be part of creating that miracle for us, feel free to learn more about joining us in the Holy Land this coming January: http://biblical-journeys.com/shirin-mcarthur-and-henry-hoffman-holy-land-tour/ 


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Vocabularies


Did you know that the Oxford English Dictionary is updated four times every year? That would have been impossible before the Internet, when the OED was only available in printed book form. Now that it can be updated electronically, it seems that keeping up with our expanding English language is a constant job. This summer alone, the OED added over 600 new “words, phrases and senses” to their “definitive record of the English language.”

There are so many versions of English, spoken around the US and across the world—and I’m not just talking about how many words there are to indicate a table or express disappointment. Today, I’m pondering our specialized vocabularies and our facility with different portions of that broader cultural phenomenon we call language.

I’ve spent significant portions of the past month immersed in the editing of a Doctor of Ministry dissertation. The work has been fascinating, both in what I’ve learned about one aspect of multicultural ministry and in coming to terms with how many vocabularies one culture can utilize.

First, there’s the vocabulary of Christian ministry, with all its fancy words for different aspects of the ways we understand and live out our faith. Having studied and worked in Christian ministries of one sort or another for much of my adult life, this language is quite familiar to me. Then there’s the vocabulary of cultural anthropology, with its various descriptors and theories about how we all interact. This is not my background, but I can intuit much from context and close, careful reading.

Then there’s the language of editing, complete with its own vocabulary, rules, and practices. Every time I work with a new client, I realize how much of this language I now understand on an unconscious, gut level, purely from habitual and heavy practice.

Then there are other vocabularies—not all of them using the written word—that are quite foreign to me. One evening I was reading a blog post that referenced another creative endeavor that she called “his #WMD project”—and I realized I had no idea what that meant. Upon investigation, I learned that it was a multimedia mix of written word and video recording. As I read and then listened, I realized that I had no idea how to create that video collage of multiple image windows—and that it was probably as natural to this younger man to create it as it was for me to correctly format the complex footnotes for that DMin dissertation.

IMG_6324We aren’t the only generation creating new vocabularies. For thousands of years, in multiple regions of the world, humans developed the language of flowers, or floriography, which perhaps reached its height in Victorian England. Every color of rose had a meaning. Flowers developed multiple meanings, and how flowers were arranged and combined had meaning as well. Today, however, I imagine there are few Americans who choose flowers based on anything more than “red roses are appropriate for Valentine’s Day.”

One way that my parents keep their brains sharp is by regularly tackling crossword puzzles. This has made them aware that they lack certain vocabularies, such as the names and terms associated with many sports. One way that my own brain stays sharp is by immersing myself in the new vocabularies—such as cultural anthropology—associated with my editing jobs.

I’m willing to learn new nonverbal vocabularies, too. I have recently created and edited my first digital audio recording and will soon need to dive more deeply into video—but these are not vocabularies I can yet easily comprehend. I will do so because I feel God calling me to expand the vocabularies I use in ministry.

What new vocabularies are you discovering or engaging? How are you called to expand yourself in ministry or service?


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Wealth and Hurricanes


A few days ago, I read this rather startling observation: “Jesus has more to say about money than about any other topic, including prayer.” I admit I was surprised to read this—and it goes to show how “down to earth” Jesus’ teaching really is. He understood where we would find ourselves tripping up, in the spiritual life—less often in our communication with God and more often in how we lived out our relationship with God in our daily lives.

IMG_6293 moneyIt does indeed seem that we need regular reminders about the potential and power of money to wreak havoc in our lives—and the risks inherent in making money into our reason, goal, security net, excuse…we all do it, in one way or another.

I have a client who is also a freelancer—in a different field. He sometimes comments, very wisely, about how we end up focused on our “first-world problems,” like not having enough hours in the day to get our personal website work done because we’re so busy with our paid work. He’s right. So many people around the world are focused on whether there will be enough food on the table tomorrow, or if there will be electricity tonight. Our websites would have absolutely no meaning if there was no electricity to power them; they literally would not exist.

How far we have come, it sometimes seems to me, from the very earthy images that Jesus uses to reconnect us with our Creator God. Perhaps that is why I often find myself returning to images of nature for my daily Instagram posts. Mother Earth has so much to teach us—including how little we can rely on our wealth.

Consider for a moment two events in this past week: Hurricane Maria and the earthquake in Mexico City. Both of these natural disasters had no regard for wealth or poverty. They shook us to our foundations, regardless of where we stand. Water flowed everywhere, power lines were whipped about, anything was picked up by the wind and flung down anywhere else. Natural disasters don’t care how much money you have.

At our best, we also don’t care how much money you have when it comes to responding to natural disasters. We see images of people gathering to help dig trapped people out of buildings in Mexico City and clear waterlogged debris in the Caribbean.

Wealth comes in many forms—not all of them material. And with great wealth—and here I would definitely include the great fortune of not being impacted by disaster—comes great responsibility. We who are living with our first-world problems have a responsibility to reach out to those who suddenly find themselves in third-world situations.

My husband Henry is a retired priest. He’s leaving on Tuesday to spend a couple weeks as a volunteer chaplain in Houston, which is still in the beginning stages of recovery from Hurricane Harvey. He has been invited to minister with people who are living in a pair of hotels, unable to return to damaged or destroyed homes, and to the FEMA staff who are working with them. He is called to listen, pray, encourage, and support them, in whatever ways the Holy Spirit reveals to him, and to them.

He’s also been asked to bring toiletries with him—these are evidently very difficult to come by at this point—but the primary wealth he’s bringing is his own groundedness in God. He is wealthy beyond measure, in this situation: he has a home in fine shape, enough money and a car to drive to Houston, and plenty of time available to give to those less fortunate. And God has called him to be a good steward of those resources, in part by sharing them with others.

What are your many forms of wealth? How are you called to share them?