Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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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Three Steps Toward, Two Steps Away

After such a banner week last week, I don’t have any headlines to report this week. No major steps taken, nothing else proposed—although I did work on a submission of some of my work to a theological journal. But as I pondered what did happen this week, I found myself thinking that it’s not “three steps forward, two steps back” but rather that I’ve consolidated my steps from last week and kept speaking my truth.

Much of the reason that I didn’t write any poetry this week, or work much on my SMART goals or other SCORE work, was because Henry and I traveled to and from Albuquerque this week—a round-trip of almost a thousand miles. We made the journey because my parents are down-sizing to an apartment and were giving us their dining room table and chairs, along with a number of other household items ranging from furniture and garden tools to kitchen gadgets, books, and Native American pottery.

Trips, vacations, and other breaks from routine are usually gifts for us, but they can also throw us off our routines—which can be deadly to the establishment of newly created practices. I know that this has been the case for me in the past. Like I indicated last week, all I can really do is commit myself to moving onward “one day at a time” and recognize that there will be days when that just doesn’t happen. The good news is that I’m now back home, I’ve got plenty of work to do, and I am still managing to put my own creative work first.

Another gift of this past week was a meeting with my spiritual director, who helped me to remember that this desire, this drive to make changes in my life, is rooted in my relationship with God. God called me to this ministry, and all I need to do is keep taking one more step, and then one more step, and then one more…. Some days those steps will feel like I’m not “making progress,” but my sense of the bigger picture is still terribly small.

IMG_1480In fact, I can trust that this journey is much like walking a labyrinth. The path will unfold before me and sometimes it may seem that I’m walking away from my goal, rather than toward it. But the fact remains that there is only one path in the labyrinth, and it leads to the center. Once I start on the path, I just need to keep walking, day by day, to the best of my ability.

Where in your life does it feel like you might be moving away from your goal, or even taking two steps back? Can you trust God, one day at a time, believing that you are indeed on a journey toward the center of your own particular labyrinthine journey?


Releasing What Is Extraneous

One of the things I did on vacation recently was re-read a favorite short story—twice. I finished reading it once, and immediately felt the need to read it again. On the second time through, part of what kept catching my attention was the fact that nothing was extraneous to the developing story line. One of the things that makes short stories harder to write than longer ones—and poetry more difficult to write than stories—is the need to take out everything that isn’t critical to moving forward the plot or idea of the piece.

Part of what I found myself doing in quieter moments on vacation was similar, in a sense. I was sifting through the crowd of ideas and thoughts and experiences and worries and such that have been running through my mind over the past several months of transition. I was working, consciously, to let go of what was extraneous, so that I could focus on my relationship with God and reconnect with the spiritual center of my life.

DSC_0364cOne of the exercises I did for myself was to make a list of all the ways I saw myself, all the roles I’ve been playing. Then I spent time in prayer, reflecting on each of them, and what held the most—or least—meaning, or need, or hope, or energy, at this point in my life. As the wind whipped through the palm trees, I listened to the rustling sound, wrote a poem about the rustling, returned to an internal stillness. Made lunch. Repeated the process. Re-read the short story. Reflected some more. Released into God’s hands yet more of the issues and items that felt extraneous to my life in this season.

Eventually the word that became central was “let.” Let go. Let be. That sense of allowing things to unfold felt incredibly important—the way that a blog post or poem will unfold when I let go of my need to control it and see what the Spirit, speaking through me, might have to say.

When did you last take time to reflect on what’s essential in your life? When have you “let go” and waited, trusting, for what might unfold? Is this Easter season perhaps a good time to reflect on the roles you live, the ways you spend your time, and release what is extraneous at this stage in your journey?



The Only Constant is Change

Henry and I have moved a lot over the years. In fact, in the 21 years we’ve been married, we’ve lived in nine different locations, ranging from a one-bedroom seminary apartment to a spacious adobe house. We’ve discovered that there are both advantages to moving often (you regularly get to purge your belongings) and disadvantages (it seems like every time I get a garden established, we move!). We don’t always plan to move so frequently, but it just seems to be the pattern of our life together.

When we moved into our current house, we both really felt that we were here to stay. In fact, Henry joked about only leaving here “in a box.” We love the rural setting, the birds and bees and deer and rabbits—even when they mess with the garden. We love hearing the sound of coyotes and owls at dusk, and the number of stars we can see on a clear night. DSC_5361We’ve also invested a lot of time, energy, money and love into this home, including this beautiful rock garden which is our back yard.

But I’ve learned to “never say never.” As someone first said decades ago, life is what happens while you’re making other plans. Due to Henry’s health issues, we’re moving again. Limitations in his lung capacity mean that it’s time to live at a lower elevation. After some research and discussion, as well as prayer, we’re looking at somewhere in the Tucson area—just three hours from here—as our target destination. It takes us from 6000 feet to just over 2000, and he could feel the difference when we recently traveled there to purchase his first set of hearing aids. Sea level might be even better, but humidity, cold, and allergens are other factors that affect lungs and so Tucson seems to be a good compromise.

Naturally I’ve experienced a range of emotions over the weeks as this change has slowly become a reality in our lives. I’ve also realized that shifts in my life—whether they be related to home, work, or vocation—seem to occur in three-year cycles. I became a freelancer and we moved to this home in 2012, so it seems I’m due for another round of change.

It’s also important to notice that so many of those shifts have occurred as we followed the invitation of the Spirit. In 2003, Henry took an early retirement buyout from his job and went to seminary. In 2006, we moved to New Mexico in his pursuit of ordination. Our move in 2012 was also saying “yes” to an invitation to ministry here. Through each move, we’ve trusted that God is inviting us along a path that we don’t always see clearly. Looking back, I can see how richly we’ve been blessed, every step of the way. It’s not always been easy, but it’s been blessed.

And so, when I can rest in that trust, I am at peace with this move—even as the idea of putting all our belongings in boxes yet again feels quite daunting. I can even look forward to the possibilities ahead of us: new friends, new opportunities, a new house to make “home”—for however long we are blessed to live there.

(For those who are wondering about the practicalities, we have a mid-December close date on our house here—which went under contract before it even got on the market—and we are now looking for a house in Tucson.)

When have you trusted the Spirit’s invitation and stepped forward in faith? What happened? Are there any such invitations—large or small—being offered to you right now?