Friday, June 23, 2017

Our Sacred Bodies

Dear Friends,

The temperature has finally hit the summer range – 70s and 80s and 90s. We’ve put away hats and scarves, the clothes we wear all winter long from our heads to our feet. Release! Out come shorts and tanktops, flimsy shoes and, if we’re wise, sunscreen.

On the beach, we see people of all bodily shapes and sizes, young and old. I saw a little boy on the beach recently. He was digging his way into China, as all children do in fine sand. This little guy had a sunblock suit on from neck to knees. His mother had gotten the message about the danger of sun for young bodies. Seeing him brought to mind a piece called, “The Bodies of Grownup” by the British spiritual writer, Janet Morley, which I have in my collection of reflections worth keeping. She writes:

                                The bodies of grownups Come with stretchmarks and scars
                                Faces that have been lived in Relaxed breasts and bellies
                                Backs that give trouble And well-worn feet,
                                Flesh that is particular Obviously mortal.
                                They also come with bruises on their heart Wounds they can’t forget
                                And each of them A company of lovers in their soul
                                Who will not return And cannot be erased
                                And yet I think there is a flood of beauty Beyond the smoothness of youth
                                And my heart aches for that grace of longing That flows through bodies
                                No longer straining to be innocent But yearning for redemption.

There it is, at the end. The yearning for redemption: a yearning that we hardly think of in our youth or as we are getting started in the world. Rather, this yearning for redemption stokes for a long time in us and means more to us as our bodies age and we have more yesterdays than tomorrows.

Jesus, too, had a body. He was like us and perhaps had scars and bruises from working at carpentry in his early years. He certainly bore the wounds inflicted by others in the days before and during his dying on the cross. Jesus treasured those wounds. He took those wounds with Him into His glorified life and indeed into heaven at His ascension.

If you are young, and have occasion to study older persons, look not just at the lines in their faces, or the stoop of their shoulders, look deep into those persons who bear age as an honor. They have had to struggle with God and themselves and all manner of things great and small. And if you are old, and look upon the young, see in their bodies vigor and desire for life, and pray that they achieve more than they hope for. Holy bodies at any age.

Our bodies are graced by God with life and purpose. Maybe our bodies have stood the test of time well, or maybe they have become somewhat crippled. They are all that we have that stands between heaven and earth. So let’s treasure them.


~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, June 16, 2017

Gifts of the Spirit

Dear Friends,

As a Church, we celebrate Corpus Christi today – the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Paul gave us the earliest account of the institution of the Eucharist – the self-giving of Jesus to all believers under the elements of bread and wine. Paul also was the first to tell us that we are the body of Christ. Many parts, but all one body. So today is a celebration of what we receive and who we are. We belong to Christ’s Body and we belong to each other. There are implications to this belonging. This week, in a veritable blitz of light emanating from citizens of our city who hold many faiths, I heard how permeating the spirit of belonging is in our community. Here are some vignettes about Rochesterians who have come to value belonging, dignity and a chance at life for people in the community that we generally do not see. Can these stories of inspiration be anything less than gifts of the Spirit?

Karen Morris is a judge in Brighton. She is part of a group of law officials and citizens who have put together a system called Ticket2Ride which gives round-trip bus tickets to court-mandated appearances for people who would not otherwise easily get there. While the tickets will be provided, the responsibility for their appointment remains with the individual. A leg up.

Public Defender Tim Danaher has recently been recognized for the work he has done to insure that indigent defendants had lawyers at their first court hearing. He’s also worked for increased resources for indigent defense. Efforts largely unseen by the busy public.

I was part of a group that toured the year-old facility on Mt. Read Blvd. that houses Foodlink. The name has been synonymous with food for those in need since the late 1970s. Now Foodlink manages food intake and distribution in 10 counties from Lake Ontario to Alleghany County. Food trucks go our daily to various locations, so that people can come up to the truck to buy fresh produce and other food items. No soda! Foodlink is part of a national network, but the folks who work there and who staff their new state-of-the-art kitchen are dedicated to insuring that the people who need cooked meals the most get them, especially children. This summer, as in other summers, food will be delivered to various recreation centers and places when children and youth gather.

Then there’s David Beinetti, one of the principals at the architectural firm SWBR. He has a particular passion that people should have dignified affordable housing. Two of SWBR’s recent projects are in the Carriage House on Canal Street and the Wedgepoint Apartments near St. Joseph’s house of Hospitality and ABVI. Both are fully occupied. The surprise in our conversation came when David told me the landscaping department of SWBR designed a kitchen garden for the culinary school at East High, so that students could cook from garden to table. Only then did David and his colleagues discover that the students knew nothing about planting or tending a garden. So he and others are now gracious teachers of gardening as well. Projects like this have unforeseen consequences.

Sister Beth LeValley has reminded me that for the last six years through its Burial Initiative at the Oatka Cemetery and, more recently, at Riverside, the Greater Rochester Community of Churches has laid to rest about 25 people a year who died with no family or resources. The silence of death is broken by the respect of the community of believers.

We place these generous human efforts into the context of the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. We recall that Jesus never asked us to create a tabernacle where He could be contained. Jesus had to be with people wherever they were, whatever needs they brought before him. When he fed them, he fed them generously. When he attended to their deeply human needs, he did so with a tender spirit. He has invited all of us throughout  history, to be generous to those most in need. One body, many parts. The Body of Christ in our day.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, June 9, 2017

Sharing Life and Love

Dear Friends,

Some time ago, Barbara Bush gave the commencement address at Wellesley College. She voiced thoughts that might help us deepen our sense of this weekend’s Feast of the Holy Trinity.

Barbara Bush said to the graduates, “Whatever choice you make about the future direction of your life, I hope you will always remember that, in the end, it won’t really matter much to you whether you pulled off one more million dollar deal, that you scrambled to the top of the corporate ladder in your firm, or that you were listed among the Fortune 500. In the end, what will really matter will be the people in your life – your husband, your wife, your parents and children, your family and your friends. The important thing in life is not how much you made, or even how much you accomplished, but how much you loved and who you loved and who loved you.”

The truth of the matter is that we were made for love – to love and to be loved. We came into existence because two people loved one another. Our early lives depended on the love of others for us. In fact, we still depend on love to get us through daily life.

Why are we this way? Why is it that we can’t we live in isolation? Why do we need others? Because faith tells us that we are created in the image and likeness of God. Just that. On this Trinity Sunday, we celebrate our gracious God, who is not just an idea, a power or a solitary being. Trinity Sunday celebrates our God who is Three Persons bound together in a love so intense that it surpasses all our experience and understanding, our ability to grasp it fully or to explain it. What’s more, Trinity Sunday makes it clear that when I share my life, my love, I am most like God who is always sharing life and love. This God of ours is not a distant God, but one who surrounds, sustains and encourages us day after day. God is to be plumbed by my searching mind. God is to be celebrated even when darkness descends. God is to be trusted when I do not feel like trusting.

There’s even more. Our God is not a dour and solemn God. Our God is a joyous and dancing God. It’s easy not to believe that. After all, hasn’t our God been promoted by preachers as serious, and unengaged by delight? Yet the mystics have believed over the centuries that God dances for joy and they found their own joy and delight in welcoming God this way. We certainly like to laugh and dance. Go to any festive gathering and this is what people do. We image God in festive times as much as in any other time of our day and maybe more so.

God’s life is full of light and God’s embrace brings light into our lives. Heaviness in our life does exist, as we endure pain and suffering. But this heaviness does not come from God. There is no heaviness in God, or when God holds us close. In God, there is joy.  Let’s be sure of that, and happy to be joyful ourselves.

So today we celebrate God who is Trinity and we say, in the words of Richard Rohr, “God for us, we call you Father. God alongside us, we call you Jesus. God within us, we call you Holy Spirit. You are the eternal mystery that enables, enfolds, and enlivens all things, even us and even me. (The Divine Dance)”

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, June 2, 2017

Speaking God's Language

Dear Friends,

Speaking of Pentecost, we can easily be overwhelmed by the rushing wind, contagious fire and enabling Holy Spirit, that we miss one other potent aspect of the day: namely, that everyone heard Peter speaking in their own tongues – in their very own language.

There was no official language for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Not imperial Latin or universal Greek or local Aramaic or the language of the political/religious parties of Galilee and Judea.

Think about it! Everyone heard the voice of God through Peter in their own language, the language of the streets, the idiom people used, their nuances. God is revealed on Pentecost as a God without borders  –  a God who rejects sameness as necessary for everyone. There is no one right way to speak to or to be human and to be in touch with the living God. Everyone has a take on who God is and why we need to treasure and make the most of God-with-us. Everyone can ask questions of the Living God and of Jesus the Risen One. Everyone has wisdom and insight to share.

This breath-stopping thought about how God honors all existing languages in this Pentecost moment is not mine. It drifted into my computer from an unknown source and I have kept it as profound insight. The anonymous author of the article that embodied this thought put it this way: “On Pentecost, God gives the divine voice to the languages of a bunch of nobodies and a crowd of commoners. It is an act of liberation, both for humankind and for God.”

Think about the ways nations have tried to suppress the language of undesirable people. One language, those in power say, is all we need. Our language. Yet even in English, how many words have come from conquered people, indigenous people, people who have been told that their language is too much to learn. When language dies, cultures die. People whose cultures die lose heart. We have seen it and know it to be true.

Yet, “Pentecost,” again quoting the unknown author of this insightful piece, “was a rebellion against all who would seek to restrict God to a single, respectable or official language of a single, righteous   people or a single systematic theology.

Pentecost was a protest in which God refused to be silenced by the language of the powerful.

Instead, on Pentecost, God spoke. And the people in the street understood.”

And then, the people in the street spoke with the voice of God – reaching to others in word and Spirit with the very conviction of God.

Today, we pause to hear the voice of God, speaking truth in all languages, bringing comfort, light, grace and the courage to face an uncertain future, which is nonetheless, full of hope. And we are called to speak God’s word to our war-weary, hungry world.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Coming of the Holy Spirit

Dear Friends,

Today has many meanings in the various aspects of life we live: we look back on Jesus’ Ascension and look forward to the coming of the Holy Spirit. We also celebrate Memorial Day. Together, they speak to us of unity and hope. To begin, we look at Jesus. Throughout his public ministry, Jesus preached his message in word and action. The way he treated the needy and the powerful, the stories he told, the succinct one-liners he shared, the Lord’s Prayer all highlighted Jesus’ message. His message was not a private gift to a select few to be hoarded, but a public message to be spoken and lived by the whole company of believers and the world as well.

In his prayer for his disciples in John 17, Jesus had prayed: “I have entrusted to them the message you, Father, entrusted to me, and they have received it.” John 17.1-11. The message.

People don’t receive any one message the same way. We all receive a message according to our capacity to receive it, according to our consciousness, vision and imagination.

Mary Magdalen for example, received and passed on the message about Christ’s resurrection in ways different from Peter and Thomas. There are as many nuances to the message of Jesus as there are people receiving it.

If you saw the movie Crocodile Dundee, you remember him musing over the battle between the Australian Aborigines and the settlers from Europe. “Our squabbles,” Dundee said, “are like those of two fleas on the back of a dog arguing who owns the dog.”

No one owns the dog – and in the case of Jesus – no one owns his message. It belonged to all of Jesus’ contemporary disciples and it belongs to us.

So here we are – in between the Ascension and Pentecost – potentially a time when we realize in a fresh way that the prayer of Jesus washes over us and the message of Jesus urges us forward to help shape with one another a better world, our eye fixed on the coming reign of God. No one of us owns the message, but each of us knows the message in a unique way. That’s why it’s so important for us to speak up and work in ways that arise from our grasp of Jesus’ message. Jesus never told his followers that discipleship would be easy. There would be suffering if they tried to make Jesus’ message felt in the world, but he also promised that this suffering would not overwhelm them.  

This year, Memorial Day falls between Ascension and Pentecost, and we as a nation remember with tenderness men and women who have given their lives somewhere in the world that those of us here are home might be free. I can’t help thinking of the soldiers who lie in Flanders’ Field beneath the poppies, who responded to the call of the nation to go fight and die. In death, they passed the torch to others, and the presence of God in Jesus wove through the courageous actions of the fallen and those who finished the task. Other wars at other times gave us empty seats at our tables, heroes and veterans. The days of war were significant for them and for their families. We remember. The stuff of Memorial Day is made of such memories and such lives.

As Memorial Day is layered with the anticipation of Pentecost, as we go about our daily lives from home to work to our volunteer efforts, as we celebrate family and friends or make decisions about life, as we meet and welcome the refugee and the stranger, I hope we can join each other all week long in waiting and prayer. The message of Jesus is within us. Go. Be ready to spread the good news. Make peace real in our day. Come Holy Spirit!    


~ Sister Joan Sobala

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Vines of Life

Dear Friends,

Jesus’ analogy “I am the vine and you are the branches” is a favorite, isn’t it? Not pumpkin vines or tomato vines or wisteria or trumpet vines, but grape vines that produce food for eating, and for wine – Eucharistic wine and crisp table wine to make our celebrations festive.

We remember with delight Jesus’ experience at the wedding feast at Cana, and how Jesus turned ordinary water into fine wine, not cheap wine. We have the testimony of the steward of the wedding on that point: “Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now. (John 2.10)” God knows how to make only good wine.

It would be easy to focus solely on the connection of vine and branches to Christ. But here are a few other lessons about vines and branches that make us appreciate even more that connection.

Vines need to be pruned. In early April, I took myself up a footpath to a vineyard in the Finger Lakes. The pruner had already been through and had sniped away the long winter growth and tie-twisted the vines to the wire fencing. These shorn vines looked as though they could produce nothing. But patience and time would tell. When we think about the people we love or think of ourselves, for that matter, we know that pruning is necessary for life. Sometimes stories of pruning are tender or funny or heart wrenching. There have been times when family and friends have seen and heard their loved ones in the throes of pruning, caught their breath, hoped and prayed as their loved one went on.

The second fact is that vines are always exposed to the elements. There is nowhere to hide from the intense heat, beating hail, freezing cold and determined wind. Every one of us is exposed to the elements – every kind of weather – spiritual, social, cultural, illness, our own and others, the little deaths and the big deaths of life. We’ve come through those times and here we are, bearing fruit.

You and I live and thrive in a biblical land where God is the keeper of the vineyard. This is the sentiment we find in Isaiah 27.2-3: “The pleasant vineyard, sing about it! I, the Lord, am its keeper, I water it at every moment. Lest anyone harm it, night and day, I guard it.”

You and I are the Finger Lakes region with its vines growing abundantly on the hillsides overlooking the lakes. The storms and the sun have shaped us.

Catherine of Siena, living in Tuscany with its splendid vineyards, was moved to write:
The sun hears the fields talking about the effort,
And the sun smiles and whispers to me,
Why don’t the fields just rest,
For I am willing to do everything
To help them grow?
Rest, my dears, in prayer.

Let us, this summer, rest in confidence that we grow under God’s tender watchfulness.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Meaning of Motherhood

Dear Friends,

Happy Mother’s Day to all who nurture: those who, in unity with the Holy Spirit, nudge, inspire, heal, encourage and return our cherished ones to God. Mothers and others who nurture are worthy of being celebrated for all they are, do and represent. We are forever connected with our mothers, though our relationships with them are psychologically complex and spiritually challenging. Some have pushed us hard or perhaps left us to fend for ourselves. But the connection remains. Not all mothers are perfect, though some are nearly so. One child, when asked what would make her mother perfect, replied “I would like her to get rid of those invisible eyes at the back of her head.”

In many ways, Mother’s Day stops at being a sentimental day of giving flowers, cards and gifts. Then it is Monday, and all is back to normal. But anyone who says negative things about Mother’s Day, itself, risks the annoyance of people for whom this day is an important gesture of reverence for the one who bore them. Writers about Mother’s Day walk a fine line between praise of the day and the women, and saying hard things about the need to reclaim and indeed, find new depths in the ongoing meaning of mothers in our fast-paced “I’ll think about that later” world.

Motherhood, in one form or another, is in the news more often than we realize. A week ago, Pope Francis gave a talk to Italian high school students who study in a school dedicated to peace. In his talk, Pope Francis decried the misuse of the term “mother.” “I am ashamed by the name of a bomb – the mother of all bombs. Look, a mother gives life, but this brings death! And this is what we casually call this bomb?  What on earth is happening here?” The word “mother” is not always used in respectful terms.

Another news item last week was the story of more of the Nigerian Chibok girls released from captivity by the Boko Haram. As the camera panned over the girls, the reporter noted that many mothers were crying for joy because their daughters were returned. But not all mothers wept with joy because their daughters were still among the missing. Mothers move between heartache and joy in their lives.

Today’s mothers of infants through teens juggle work and home. Changing cultural values make it important, indeed necessary for women to rethink, reinterpret, articulate and reclaim the meaning of motherhood. Women who have strong roots in their religious traditions are called to understand, uphold and live by the richness of their faith, as they live public/civic and domestic lives.

Catholic Christians have long had a devotion to Mary, the God-Bearer and our Mother. My friend’s Italian grandmother prayed to Mary as an “earth mother” who knew birth, human work, human delight and death. Mary is mother, sister, icon, friend to all who welcome her strong but gentle presence.

And then there is Jesus, described by St. Anselm in the late 11thcentury, “And you, Jesus, are you not also a mother? Are you not the mother who, like a hen, gathers her chicks under her wings? Truly Lord, You are our mother…”                                    

Thank God we are never done with mothers.

~ Sister Joan Sobala