Friday, July 31, 2020

Divesting for the Sake of Others

Dear Friends,

I bet many of us have had this experience. We come to a stoplight, often near an expressway exit, and there, looking directly at us is a disheveled individual, usually male, holding up a sign that says, “Hungry! Anything will help.”

My first reaction is to look at the stoplight and urge it to turn green so I don’t have to see this man anymore. Then I try to look away, fidget with something on the dashboard, try to ignore the person. Occasionally, if I have them in the car, I give the man a package of breakfast bars, or suggest that he go to the House of Mercy. The light turns green and I drive away, feeling sad, guilty, helpless.

How can I do anything in the face of this real life situation?

Then we hear today’s Gospel and I feel even more guilty. Jesus saw the crowd: poor people, homeless people, sick people, people without hope. The Scripture says, “Jesus’ heart was moved with pity.” Even though Jesus was still sorrowing over the beheading of John the Baptist, Jesus was very much present to the moment. He was a compassionate person. Compassion means “to suffer with.” Jesus was compassionate to the core of his being.

How do we imitate the compassion that Jesus shows in today’s Gospel? How do we do that in today’s society? I can see and fully understand why any of us might be reluctant to deal with that person at the stoplight or the one who stops us on the street and asks for money. We don’t feel safe. We are uncomfortable facing what may be potential danger.

So how do we, in this time and place, imitate the compassion of Jesus?

One of the leaders of the church in the 4th century, St. Basil, wrote, “The bread that you don’t eat is the bread of the hungry. The garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of the naked. The shoes you do not wear are the shoes of one who is barefoot. The money you keep locked up is the money of the poor.”

Once in a while I watch an episode of a home improvement show just to see what I would do as a home designer. More often than not, closets are overfull with racks of clothes and boxes of shoes, storage areas are full of bins of “stuff,” rooms are full of children’s toys that the youngsters have outgrown and the garage and kitchen are full of generations of tools.

For us today, to act with the compassion of Jesus, perhaps we could take St. Basil seriously.

What, in the last two years, have you and your household not worn or used? What have the children outgrown in toys? All of these might go elsewhere, to be better appreciated and put to use. Package them carefully and discard what is clearly beyond anyone’s use. Make this a family effort. You and unnamed others will both benefit. This is not to make space so you can buy more. It is not the same as helping the man at the streetlight. His may well be a problem of mental or psychological distress. Thank God we have volunteer groups in Rochester who help gather the distressed and get them to safety.

May compassion of Jesus take root in us, and the ideas of St. Basil move us to divest for the sake of the lives of others.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Power of Wisdom

Dear Friends,

Today’s first reading from 1 Kings 3 gives us a snapshot of Solomon, Son of David, as he ascends the throne of Israel. “O Lord, my God,” he prayed, “I am a mere youth, not knowing how to act…Give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.” God was touched by the generosity of Solomon’s request, and it was given to him.

Fast-forward to 2020 – to two recent situations – one here in Rochester and the other in Atlanta. They both have to do with wisdom, i.e., an understanding heart. On Friday, July 17, the front page of the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper in Rochester carried the photo of John Boedicker and Charles Milks, two white men in their 20’s, carrying a statue of Frederick Douglass to be erected in Maplewood Park. The backstory is a lesson in wisdom, for when John and Charles had vandalized a similar statue two years ago, they could have been penalized and no more. But wisdom prevailed in the Center for Dispute Settlement and the Re-energizing the Legacy of Frederick Douglass Committee. These groups created a restorative justice program for John and Charles, who went through a series of experiences that did not punish, but restored these two men to life in a multiracial community. That’s how they got to carry the new statue of Douglass into Maplewood Park.

Calvin Eison, chair of the Douglass Committee, was able to secure from Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley a pledge that prosecutors would try to use this restorative justice program with defendants of color who commit similar crimes.

Wisdom restores, plants understanding in wayward or lost hearts and creates new life.

The day this article was in the newspaper, John Robert Lewis, icon of the civil rights movement and last remaining member of the 1963 March on Washington, died in Atlanta at the age of 80. Lewis was gifted by God with an understanding heart from his youth. Once he realized that, he never wavered, though he was beaten multiple times in his call for justice and could have said, “I have done enough.” The word “enough “was not in his vocabulary. The historian Jon Meacham calls Lewis a saint who shaped his life on the beatitudes.

The life of John Lewis is a thread through our Congregation’s life, for the Sisters of Saint Joseph ran the hospital in Selma, Alabama where John Lewis was brought after the attack on the far side of the Edmund Pettis Bridge. He is one of our heroes.

These stories of recent events give us inspiration to ask God for wisdom if we think we don’t have it. The letter of James offers us this encouragement: “If any of you is without wisdom, let him {her} ask it from the God who gives generously and ungrudgingly to all, and it will be given him {her}” James 1.5.

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, Jesus tells the parables of the buried treasure, the merchant searching for fine pearls and the net thrown into the sea. “Do you understand these things?” Jesus asks his disciples? Given the examples of the restored John and Charles and in the spirit of John Lewis, Jesus asks us the same thing. How will we shape our life going forward?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Ambiguities of Life

Dear Friends,

Just under the surface of all our lives is a thing called “ambiguity:” on the one hand, it could be like this. On the other hand, it could be like that.

Who is to decide? Which is real? Which is better? Which can I be sure of? Why is it that what you are sure of, I am not? And what I am sure of, you cannot see at all?

We would like life to be certain, clear, and unambiguous. If the truth be known, we try to rid ourselves of the muddy waters of ambiguity.

One thing we hope will help us do away with ambiguity is a sign. If only we had a sign, then we would be sure, but then signs themselves are ambiguous.

Consider Elijah in 1 Kings 19. Elijah was fleeing from Ahab and his queen Jezebel. Exhausted from his journey, Elijah made his way up to Mt. Horeb, seeking God and some sort of sign from God about his next steps. “Go outside, God said to Elijah. Stand before the Lord and the Lord will pass by.” There was successively a fierce wind, an earthquake, and a fire – but the Lord was not in any of these. Then there was a tiny whispering sound. And in that moment, Elijah knew God’s presence and what to do.

Listening to God in these days of pandemic and pain multiplied in a variety of ways in people’s lives, with so much that is unsure, what next steps do we take? In John 11, the story of the raising of Lazarus begins with Jesus getting word that Lazarus was ill. But Jesus did not rush off immediately to see his beloved friend. Jesus did not go to Lazarus until it was apparently too late. Instead, Jesus went when he thought he ought to go.

“Ought” has to do with a deep down sense of God’s presence that moves us if we are willing to be moved. The light comes to us and we walk by that light. “This is what I think I ought to do.” That’s the best we can do. We have read the signs of our world and life and have heard some small whisper that moves us to the next moment.

We do have to trust that God is with us, even though death seems to shroud us as it did Lazarus, and that life will emerge despite the contradictions, interruptions, disappointments, frustrations and risks that pepper our lives.

Even Paul was subject to the ambiguities of his life. “We see in a mirror dimly” he reminds us in 1 Cor. 13.12. Yet he went on without the full accurate picture of his journey. Lacking assurance and direct knowledge of this next steps, Paul opted for conviction. As the author of Hebrews says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Heb. 11.1).

So what we are called on to be today are people who trust that God is with us, and that the steps we take in harmony with God will lead us on, not necessarily to where we want to be but where we ought to be. So let’s be courageous, inquisitive, creative, self-examining, and loving. Let us walk with the clarity of God’s presence in the shroud of ambiguity around us.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Recapturing Our Childlike Qualities

Dear Friends,

As this very odd school year ends, I invite you to be a friend of a child or a group of children. Talk with them, or better still, listen to their questions, their observations about life. Get down on the grass beside a child, if you can. And peer into the eyes of a ladybug. You’ll never see it again the same way.

Too often, we organize children’s lives to an adult degree: sports uniforms, rules of play and the dressing down when a child has let down a success-oriented parent. Too much, too soon.

Play with children. Sing to them. Be silly together. Learn to be a child all over again. Don’t forget how much Jesus loved children. Don’t keep them away, he cautioned his disciples, for to such as these belong the kingdom of God.

Maybe if we recaptured our childlike qualities, we might find God and life so much more appealing, but let’s face it, other adults encourage us to subdue our childlike qualities.

We would characterize successful adults in our society as responsible, busy, serious, goal-directed, savvy, efficient, self-controlled, prompt, hard-working, capable and reliable. All good qualities.

In order to become people who bear all or most of these qualities, we have to abdicate the characteristics of children: play, risk, tearfulness, impulsiveness, secret places, burst of anger, humor and awe, curiosity, fantasy, candor, spontaneity, silliness, mischief, being adventuresome and an explorer.

Surely to become responsible adults, we have to control some of these qualities, but when we over-control or eliminate them, we run the risk of being depressed, harried, insomniac, martyrs on the altar of our own making. We get burned out, over-scheduled and give in to eating or drinking too much.

If we have become this classic adult, but still feel empty, wondering: “What is life all about, God?” then maybe this summer we need to accept a challenge from God. After all, God created the universe and life as a playful act. Reread Genesis 1 with this in mind or take a cue from Lady Wisdom talking about being with the Creator playing of the surface of the earth, playing before the Creator all the while, finding delight in the children of earth.

To do any of these things you may have to join the anonymous author of this daunting piece:
“I am hereby officially tending my resignation as an adult, and I have decided I would like to accept the responsibilities of an eight year old…I want to lie under an oak tree and run a lemonade stand with my friends on a summer day. I want to return to a time when life is simple…All you knew was to be happy because you were blissfully unaware of the things that should make you worried or upset. That everyone is honest and good. I want to believe that anything is possible…So here’s my checkbook and my car keys, my credit card bills and my 401K statements. I am officially resigning from adulthood. And if you want to discuss it further, you’ll have to catch me first, because...Tag! You’re it.”

I hope you had a laugh over this article. It’s not the way we usually look at life. It’s not what I usually write about. But in its own way, being childlike is a gift and a blessing. It is a choice to savor. It may be difficult to allow playfulness to creep into a life which had successfully stifled it. But taste it and see.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Carrying Life's Burdens Together

Dear Friends,

On this 244th Independence Day weekend, we look back on American growth and the times we have had to rebuild our nation after natural and human disasters of all kinds. Notable this year are the COVID-19 pandemic, which is continuing to speed through our country, and the protests on behalf of black and brown people that has confronted our complacence. Given all of this, what are we to make of our Gospel today? We hear the call of Jesus: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me...My yoke is easy and my burden light” (Matthew 11. 29-30). What does Jesus know about yokes that we don’t?

Yoke is not a commonly used word in our day and if we think of it at all, yoke is a freedom-restricting word. We have only to think of the yoke of slavery and oppression. That’s not anything we want for ourselves or our loved ones. Despite what history reveals we have done to black and brown people, the word yoke almost sounds un-American, because when we are yoked together, we can’t go where we want, when we want. We have to go where our yokefellow goes.

But to repeat the question, “What does Jesus know about yokes that we don’t?”

To begin, Jesus knows that yokes are meant to get the job done in an easier way. We pull together, here and now, to overcome the “isms” that threaten to destroy our nation, to put out forest fires and gather the resources to dig people and groups out of debt.

The second thing about yokes is that they are made to fit the wearers. One simply does not go off to the local Walmart to buy a yoke. They are made to fit the shoulders and the neck – made of wood by skilled carpenters so that there is no chaffing, no irritation due to rubbing.

(Let’s be imaginative for a moment. Perhaps where Jesus got those words he says to us today is from his memory of days working in the carpenter’s shop with Joseph. Maybe they made yokes. Maybe they had an enticing sign in their shop which said, “Our yokes are easy.”)

In any case, Jesus knew that we need yokes because he knew we have burdens to bear. Funny thing about us: some burdens we bear gladly, the stuff we have accumulated over the years.

Some of us take on the burden of being the savior of others, instead of letting God do the job.

But in our most honest moments, we know which burdens are essential and God-connected. They are the burdens which create, inspire and support life...burdens which give rise to justice, apply mercy like balm to sunburn or encourage peace on earth. There are the burdens of sharing one another’s joys and sorrows, the burdens of citizenship.

People can argue about it if they want, but one nation under God means that God is the yokefellow of our country, through all of our iffy times.

Going back to our Gospel, Jesus is our yokefellow. That means that we are not alone when we carry whatever essential burden is ours by choice or by providence.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, June 26, 2020

Whom Do We Receive into Our Lives?

Dear Friends,

Today’s readings – for the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time – answer the question, “Whom do we receive into our lives?” The Shunamite woman in the Second Book of Kings welcomed the prophet Elisha. There would always be a room for him in this Shunamite household. And Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew bids us to receive Him, the prophets, the righteous (that is, the just and merciful) and anyone who gives a cup of water to the little ones.

To whom are we hospitable? In this most remarkable year, when we come face to face with our neighbor in new ways, when and how and why are we hospitable? Who do we welcome to the table of our minds and hearts? On whose behalf do we put forth hospitable actions?

Are we hospitable in our hearts to everyone in our family? Possibly not. Some we can’t stand. Some rub us the wrong way. Some are our role models and we take their spirits to abide in us.

Thinking of the generosity of the Shunamite woman toward Elisha, for whom or what idea, cause, new realization do we keep a room ready in our hearts or minds or homes? What literature do we read and study?

With whom do we spend time?

Who is it that makes us cross the street – literally or figuratively – in order to avoid?

Are we hospitable to people as they are or only if they are as we want them to be?

Are we hospitable to the prophets? I suspect that many of us would not think of George Floyd as a prophet. He probably didn’t think of himself in those terms either. But he stood as placeholder for all those who died by police violence, worldwide, and millions of people worldwide recognized him as such. By his dying and his dying words, George Floyd helped us rip off the scabs from our eyes that accepted the abuse of black and brown people by the police and by extension, by all of us who knowingly or not are invested with white privilege.

Speaking about prophets, the late theologian Carroll Stuhlmueller told his listeners, “prophets have the strength to be at the heart of the community and be rejected by that community.” And Parker Palmer, the Quaker spiritual writer asks us to be hospitable to the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned without demanding that they become our friends or grateful allies.

Through the summer, each of us masked as we pass another person on the street, would find it easy to ignore him/her. Who would know? Who cares? In our hearts, we would know. At this moment, the hospitable wave, the thumbs up would makes a big difference. Small positive gestures bring God’s grace to others.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, June 19, 2020

The Attic of Your Mind

Dear Friends,

Talking with friends and family about how they spent these 100-plus days of pandemic isolation, a number of people said they hoed out various parts of their homes, including their attics. That made me remember a phrase I learned many years ago – “look for it in the attic of your mind.”

We all have nooks and shelves and niches in our mind where we have stored ideas, memories, unfinished tasks, things we learned in classes or from life situations. This Father’s Day weekend, I find myself recalling songs my father, Connie, sang to me, how he taught me to read a road map, how he prayed, and his stance at the tee as he played golf. Do dust off the memories of your Dad this weekend, and share them with your family.

But there is something more precious that is somewhere in our minds: something Paul in Philippians 2.5 encourages us to have within us, namely “the same attitude/mind that is in Christ Jesus.” I would hope that the mind of Christ is active in you during these days when the pandemic is mixed with the aftermath of George Floyd’s untimely death. These two realities, plus the economic downturn the pandemic caused, have absorbed us whether we want them to do so or not.

But where will we go for wisdom and understanding about the meaning and implications of these interwoven realities? Gurus from many spheres of influence tell us what to fix, how to proceed, what the most important thing to do might be. Still others remind us that we can’t honestly say these problems have nothing to do with us. We cannot claim we are out of the loop.

This is where the mind of Christ comes in. Most especially, the mind of Christ, His attitude toward people, which we have been taught since our youth, is where we are to go for courage, insight,  determination to seek truth and follow after it and set people free of illness, poverty and racism/sexism. Life today can be so full of absorbing things that we forget God, Jesus, the mind of Christ, the call we said “yes” to as His disciples at our Baptism and repeated at our Confirmation. These life-giving realities may well be in the niches, corners, shelves in the deep recesses of our own minds. Go hunting. Find what Jesus reminded his hearers, his disciples: “love God with your whole heart, your whole mind, your whole soul and your whole strength and your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12.30-31). Remember his story of the Good Samaritan, the ways he healed the blind, lame, and deaf. He treated women and children with respect. Some commentators believe that Simon the Cyrenean, who helped carry the cross, was black. Race, gender, age made no difference to Jesus who served all.

In the weighty matters before us today, neutrality is not an option. Our participation in the reshaping of our decimated world will make a difference. So, put on the mind of Christ. Let your own heart be shaped by Christ’s desire for a world that keeps coming closer and closer to heaven on earth. As one of the encouraging ads on TV says: “Together we can” – which we edit “Together with Christ, we can.”

~Sister Joan Sobala