Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Reimagining the Lion and the Lamb

Dear Friends,

This week, enjoy these imaginative pairings of God’s creation in Isaiah 11.6-9: 

“Then the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.
The calf and young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like an ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord.”

To our way of thinking, these pairings don’t fit together. They seem adversarial. They don’t make sense. Have you ever seen a lion eat hay? Yet combinations of these images appear on Christmas cards, so our ancestors in the faith made what they believed were significant connections. In the Book of Revelations, Chapter 5, Jesus is called the Lion of Judah. He is in continuity with the sacrificial lamb, Jesus, who died for us. Jesus is both lion and lamb.

But for us today, caught as we are in the throes of a pandemic, squashed in by political battles and economic hardship, we might want to think about these figures – the lion and the lamb in the more non-biblical way – as daring to thwart one another’s lives.

We could call by the name “lion” those destructive ways of being that stalk the lambs of our society and world, causing fear, anxiety, and death. The pandemic is a lion, and the lamb the fragile human bodies don’t stand a chance against it. The lion is the emotional stress we find in us that makes us attack others, even if at other times, we love them. Abuse. Physical abuse, mental abuse. They are part of our world today. The lion is that part of us that gives no peace to our alter ego – that part of us that wants wholeness and peace prevail. In this way of thinking, the lion and the lamb are, indeed, adversarial.

What can we be, become, and/or do during this Advent season in order to reclaim the biblical imagery of the lion and lamb being one – to relinquish the adversarial way we experience them in this dismal time?

Allow for daily silence. Even a few minutes away from others, the TV or the internet. Let the hidden gifts of this season seep into our consciousness. Silence contentiousness. Welcome inner quiet. Turn away from noise. Meet God in the deep silence of your heart.

Close the door to violence. We see it nightly on television. Brawls and batterings. We need not support violence, buy it, nor give it a place in our homes. Embrace peace and let it show up in daily living.

God is coming, the one who is both lion and lamb. Will we recognize him?

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, November 20, 2020

The Gift of Gratitude

Dear Friends,

As COVID-19 keeps pursuing our bodies this Thanksgiving, let’s try to keep our eyes and hearts fixed on the big world we live in with all its graces, newness and hopefulness, as well as on our families and friends. Let’s remember that:

·         All the good done, the justice insured, all the compassion offered, all the violence rejected across the world is God’s gift to us.

·         When vaccines are proven effective and the poor are included in healing, these are God’s gift to each of us.

·         When people’s bonds are broken and they are freed to use their talents for a better life, these are God’s gift to us.

·         The surprising things that we find true, beautiful and good in our homes, relationships, neighborhoods, are God’s gift to us.

·         When illness, accidents, bad choices, unethical situations, international disasters of human or natural making have not overwhelmed us personally or collectively, these have been God’s gift to us.

·         When the situations of our lives have been graced with meaning-makers and consensus-builders, these have been God’s gift to us.

If gratitude catches hold of our hearts and minds and feet it becomes a way of living in us. When we receive with thanks and give away freely, gratitude has become a way of living in us.

When Jesus in the Gospel says to the man he cured of demons to go home and make it clear to them how much God had done for him, this was God’s gift to him and gives us an example to do in like manner.

We thank God, too, for poems that urge us to be grateful and which speak to us of what we know in more pedantic ways. These are also God’s gift to us.

                “…For vows of marriage, vows of silence, 

                    vows of chastity that bend the starlight to earth…

                    For holy names and graves…

                    For the grace of growing old 

                    And thinking that it’s wisdom.

                    For that share of intimacies

                    I don’t share with words

                    But share with sadness and content.” (William O’Leary, 2017)

On Thanksgiving Day, may we roam among the snippets of thought, the sacred spaces of this earth and be deeply aware that God has given us hearts that are capable of enlarging with gratitude.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, November 13, 2020

Working Together for the Common Good

Dear Friends,

On the Sunday after his election was confirmed by his victory in Pennsylvania, President-elect Joe Biden went to Mass. Certain things would not change for him. Joe Biden was a man of faith before his election. Afterwards, he would need God’s guidance to put together a government that would be fair to all, respectful of and embracing all Americans, without exception. Ahead, there will be successes in this agenda. There will also be missteps, blind spots, and pain. After all, Joe Biden is human. So are we.

As he spoke in victory, I was appreciative of President-elect Biden’s desire to build up the lives of all citizens and newcomers alike. But he is not alone in this task. You and I need to share in that profound work. Like Joe, we can be confident of the wisdom of God, the constant companionship of God as we go forward. But we need to be open to it, access it, activate it, renew it daily.

The American project of growth and outreach stretches before us. President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will have to surround themselves with knowledgeable people for whom the common good is the acknowledged goal of service in government. We will need to do in like manner, so as not to grow sour because of political differences or be entrenched in old ways that did not serve life for all. 

In his recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis emphasizes social friendship as a blueprint for healing the many scars from wounds inflicted, even within families, during the election process. Pope Francis highlights the virtues of compassion, solidarity and dialogue.

Recently, the Bishop of San Diego, CA, Robert McElroy, in a talk given at the University of Notre Dame, built on the words of Pope Francis: “We, as people of faith, must demonstrate how our nation can be rebuilt by citizens who identify with the vulnerability of others precisely by refusing to channel our compassion and compassionate action along the lines of party and class.” On solidarity, Bishop McElroy said that Americans, beginning with Catholics, must learn to put the common good above self-interest. (This may be the hardest task of all!) And when it comes to dialogue, he said, a new tone of encounter needs to be embraced. “It is vital,” Bishop McElroy said, “that we be less magisterial and more dialogical even on those issues on which are convictions are most profound.

To do these things with fruitfulness, you and I need to give up Redundance, Rebukes, Regrets, and Recurrences of destructive patterns. Instead, we must be Resourceful, Re-creative, Respectful, and capable of Renewing with the Holy Spirit the face of our nation and ultimately, the earth.

Let it be so.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, November 6, 2020

Keeping Our Lives Well Oiled

Dear Friends,

The early darkness of standard time has descended on our land. In delicious contrast, today’s Gospel is from Matthew 25 where Jesus tells the story of the bridesmaids who were sent out into the night with oil lamps to be kept burning while waiting for the bridegroom to come.

In our day, bridesmaids are family members or friends who precede the bride up the aisle. They assist her in a variety of ways and add to the loveliness of the occasion. In Jesus’ time, however bridesmaids had one outstanding duty – namely, to light the way as they escorted the bridegroom to his bride. Each woman chosen to be a bridesmaid knew she had to bring a lamp and enough oil to see to her duty.

Jesus’ hearers knew that if the bridegroom was late, he was with the bride’s father, working out the details of her dowry. The longer the negotiations took, the higher in esteem the bride was said to be. In a subtle way, Jesus showed how much he valued women, for as he tells it, the negotiations took the better part of the night.

When the word came that the bridegroom was on his way, there was a scramble among the sleepy-eyed bridesmaids. Some of them had remembered to bring extra oil. Some forgot or made a poor judgment about how much oil was required.

The five wise bridesmaids had to face a difficult choice. They could light the way for the bridegroom and risk losing the friendship of their unprepared companions, or they could share their oil and have it run out for all of them. In choosing not to share but to be ready to escort the bridegroom, the five wise bridesmaids also chose to live with the tension their refusal created.

We know about tension. Some tension is good, like tension that keeps us alert on the highways, competent in our professional lives and physically at our peak, the tension of being a good spouse and parent, a good Christian and a good citizen. All of these tensions are exacerbated these pandemic days.

We too need a lot of oil for our lamps so that we can function meaningfully in the months ahead, mostly by staying the course of our lives. Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, has just recently been named to Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. That means he is in charge of making strong the Roman Catholic Church of Jerusalem. In describing what Pope Francis asked the archbishop to do is to “stay” where he was in a new role. To stay.

Archbishop Pizzaballa wrote to the people: “{Stay} is a verb of matured patience, of watchful waiting, of daily and serious fidelity.” He then invited his flock “to remain with me, in the same decision.”

As today’s oil bearers, you and I are called to stay in the moment, stay with the call, stay in whatever ways we need to, despite the temptations to do otherwise.

Today’s first reading teaches us that wisdom so generously offers us none other than God’s Spirit, given to help us make life-giving, life-sustaining choices in the face of the tensions of life.

Bring along enough oil. Stay the course.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Guiding Ourselves Through Grief

Dear Friends,

Both personally and on the news, I have listened to people lament loved ones who have died alone – without being there to hold their loved one’s hand, to whisper words of love. Many of these stories had to do with COVID-19 patients suffering their last hours in ICU. Even though nurses and doctors did all they could to be present to the dying, it wasn’t the same. I’ve listened to others whose loved one died alone when they took their own life in suicide. Survivors are bereft, feel cheated, abandoned.

Father Ron Rolheiser describes us when our loved one dies in these ways. He uses the word “helpless.” We can do nothing for them or for ourselves in the face of such irreversible loss.

Sometimes we are incapable of uttering any words. Sometimes we wail, or keep repeating the story of our loved one’s last day to the extent that we know it. The empty place at the table on the next holiday looms large before us, even though the event may be months away. Helplessness prevails.

Last week, I listened by phone to a woman whose beloved sister died of COVID-19 in a distant country. This tenderhearted woman lovingly and extensively talked about memories of her Sister, what she would miss. She wondered what she could do, not just to assuage this life-altering change for herself, but also for her Sister’s family. She talked about being mad at God and not finding any solace in prayer. The loss was overwhelming.

Here are some of the coping mechanisms we talked about:

Grieve. Let grief take its course. Believers know that “The souls of the just are in the hands of God. No torment shall touch them. They are at peace. (Wisdom 1-2)” This belief coexists with our grief.

Eventually, call to mind the best gifts of character your loved one possessed. Which one or two of these qualities would you like to embody in your life, so that his/her gifts go on feeding the world with truth, beauty and goodness? Ask your loved one’s family members to do this as well. And relish what each survivor has chosen.

If you have a gift that your loved one has given you, however insignificant, use it, put it out where you can see it, carry it with you…whatever seems appropriate.

And if you can’t pray, say to God, “I can’t pray!” That in itself is a prayer.

People, in deep concern for us, often say things they think will help. “God doesn’t give us more than we can take.” “God leads us to what we fear most, to show us we have nothing to fear.” “God held your loved one close even as (s)he died.” All true, but not helpful at the time of our deepest grief. All we can do is grieve and wait until we emerge from the immediacy of the pain. Sometimes the cloud will lift once and for all, and we can go on. Sometimes the cloud lifts but keeps coming back to haunt us at unexpected times.

But just as your beloved was not alone in death, but was being held lovingly by God, so too with you. You, in your grief, are being held by God, your family and friends. Give God your helplessness.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, October 23, 2020

Recognizing That We Are One

Dear Friends,

Many Americans have already voted. Each of our votes count, yet it’s worth remembering that we don’t vote in isolation, but in solidarity with others who make up our nation. While voting is on our minds, this is a good time to deepen in ourselves the awareness, the conviction, the joy that arises from the understanding that all of our fellow voters and we ourselves belong to a big family person. We are all siblings of one another. The anatomy of our bodies, the types of blood in our bloodstreams, the fact that all of us feel anxiety, delight, too cold, too hot, all tell us that we are more kin than we want to acknowledge. As far back as Exodus 22, read in today’s liturgy, God reminds us that we are not aliens, foreigners to one another, and that God’s wish for all of us is that we understand that we are, indeed, all one.

Speaking of the “Human Family,” Maya Angelou tells her readers:

                “I note the obvious differences in the human family.
                Some of us are serious, some thrive on comedy…
                The variety of our skin tones can confuse, bemuse, delight,
                Brown and pink and beige and purple, tan and blue and white.
                I note the obvious difference between each sort and type,
                But we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

We do know what it means to be a stranger, an alien, a foreigner, but so often, when life changes for us and we become an insider, accepted for who we are, we forget how it used to be. We don’t zero in on Jesus’ call to us in today’s Gospel. “Love God with your whole heart, your whole soul and your whole mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.” How we act, going forward as Americans after this election, depends on how well we have internalized the compassionate love of God.

Martin Luther King Junior helps us look ourselves in the eye and consider our motives as we respond to the questions of our day:

                “Cowardice asks the question ‘Is it safe?’
                Expedience asks ‘Is it politically correct?’
                Vanity asks ‘Is it popular?’
                Conscience asks ‘Is it right?’”

Why will we do what we do in the next four years?

For us to become a great, and I daresay, a nation at one with God, our country must take positions which are not safe or popular or even politically correct. We must take a position because it is right. Right and just and true, just as God is right and just and true, and who we are. That is the only way we can love God and our neighbor.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Understanding God's Vision

Dear Friends,

Here’s the emperor’s coin, Jesus. Are you for God or for Caesar? Here’s a woman caught in adultery, Jesus. Do you support the law i.e. stone her, or do you favor mercy for the accused?

If we were to quiz Jesus today, we’d have a lot of questions. Jesus, are you pro-choice or pro-life? Are you liberal or conservative? Jesus, tell me where you stand on the environment, racism, sexism, gun control, capital punishment, the size and shape of the federal government. And Jesus, would you have us stay in the World Health Organization? What would you do with terrorists? The questions are endless.

The difference between the Pharisees in today’s Gospel and ourselves is this: The Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus. The Gospel says, “They plotted how they might trap him, and Jesus knew their malice.”

Our questions, on the other hand, arise out of an honest searching for truth in a complex society. They are not meant to trap or embarrass Jesus, but only to better understand God’s vision for our world.

Society, in the midst of this election season laced with a stubborn pandemic, has ready answers to our questions – social media, podcasts, supermarket tabloids, talk show hosts, the tough kids in school bathrooms. They all speak with great authority and conviction.

But if we are a believing people, how do we form our consciences? How do we arrive at out decisions about voting, living, changing?

As we approach contemporary questions, here’s a possible framework for our thought and decisions.

First of all, in any decision-making process, we dwell in God and God dwells in us. In Isaiah today, God says to us: “It is I who arm you, though you know me not.” God’s wisdom, God’s presence in each of us is a given in every situation.

Secondly, Jesus’ design for each of us is contained in the Gospel. The gospels are about daily life in this world, not about life within a sacred precinct. Jesus, after all, tells more stories about workers and housewives, farmers and merchants than he talked about appropriate behavior in the synagogue. Our challenge is to apply a gospel vision to all the tough questions we face today.

Finally, attempting to deal with today’s thorny issues by ourselves makes no more sense than trying to be our own physician. This is one of the key reasons we come together for worship weekend: to hear God’s word, to taste God’s life in Eucharist, to look to one another for support.

He might reply to our questions today by saying something like this: I can’t prepare you for every choice you’ll need to make, or every situation you’ll encounter along the way, but remember God’s words spoken in Isaiah: “I am the Lord. There is no other. There is no God besides me.” Without me, there is no peace, no happiness, no satisfaction possible for you. But with me, you’ll have everything you need to discern how to live, though you might want something else or more. God also says to us in Isaiah, “I have called you by your name.” I know you. You belong to me. You are important to me. I will never forget you. You are never alone. I love you.

Despite our COVID-19 fatigue, how different our lives would be, how much more full and happy if we really took God in Jesus at his word. You, Lord, have the words of everlasting life.

~Sister Joan Sobala