Friday, September 22, 2017

Appreciating God's Creatures

Dear Friends,

During the height of Hurricane Irma, several small dolphins got washed up on the gulf coast. Two members of a TV crew tugged them back to their watery home, while a cameraman filmed the rescue. A week or two before, in southeast Texas, rescue squads saved household pets from death – bedraggled looking cats and dogs were spirited away. Meanwhile, on the vast King ranch, cattle instinctively moved to higher ground, but had no food, so hay was flown in. Intuitively, human beings save animals from dire circumstances whenever we can. Their presence in our world is more than a backdrop for human drama. In an interview after she wrote “Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the Love of God,” Elizabeth Johnson CSJ wrote ”the beasts have their own relationship with God, apart from us, as creatures of God whom God also loves. It’s not all about us.”

Animals, from earliest times, have had an important place in the lives of human beings, not just as sources of food and clothing, but as sources of joy, learning, companionship, healing and wonder. Job 12.7-8 reminds us “Ask the beasts, and they shall teach you; or the birds of the air, and they shall tell you. Or the reptiles on earth to instruct you, And the fish of the sea to inform you.”

You and I, our predecessors and contemporaries have been nudged to value animals, domestic and wild, by perceptive interpreters of the animals of our world. Chief Seattle, addressing the US government in 1854 reinforced our connectedness with animals; “What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.” The American naturalist Henry Beston challenges us to “have a wiser and perhaps more mystical concept of animals…They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.”

Environmental respect, justice and wonder have long been part of the writings of Catholic bishops and popes, but these ideas have yet to catch fire in people’s hearts. We have yet to realize that this way of thinking about the beasts is not an add-on to faith, but part of the very path of faith we travel. “Exult, all creation, around God’s throne” we pray at the Easter Vigil. Even as we say these words, we don’t fully recognize how all creation participates in the Resurrection of Jesus.

October 4, the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, is a scant 10 days away. In preparation for the feast, why not use these days to heighten our appreciation for the beasts with whom we share the earth. Go to the zoo, check out the Southeast Asian quail that play underfoot at the Lamberton Conservatory, feed the fish at Powder Mills Park, watch National Geographic or WXXI programs on animals. Tell remembered stories of seeing animals interacting with various species and one another.

The American author Barry Lopez invites us to do our part in reestablishing an atmosphere of respect for the complexity of animals’ lives and give up trophy hunting, factory farming and laboratory experiments that cause animals to suffer unduly. This respect could even help us feel revivified as a species.


~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, September 15, 2017

To Stay or To Go

Dear Friends,

Over the last few weeks, our whole country has watched residents in flooded areas of Texas and Florida be called to make a decision: to leave their homes or to hunker down, to walk or drive away or to cling to all they have come to value as their own. In short, to stay or to go.

One reason we have been absorbed in their stories is because they are our own stories. Throughout history, people like you and me, indeed, whole communities have been asked to decide whether to stay or go. Within the last 25 years, the people of Hong Kong (1997), in the face of a pending return to the control of mainland China, had to decide; the people of Scotland in a referendum (2015) had to decide whether or not to leave the British Commonwealth. Most recently, all of Britain had to decide whether to leave the European Union (2016).

Individuals have had to decide whether to leave a marriage, a job, their church which they have found less than welcoming, their homeland, their plans, their pets, their remembered safety and security.

To be faced with that decision – to stay or to go – is to stand on a threshold, to be called beyond ourselves as we have been. The deepest call is to be faithful to our heart, to our God and to the values which we know to be life-giving. How can we cross that boundary? Will we have the strength to do and to become anew?

Most of the time, people in these frames of mind or situations don’t have the luxury of a long time to think, and have to rely on their store of learnings, understandings, intuition, orientations, values and relationships to see them through. At times, no one asks us out loud whether to stay or go. We just hear it in our hearts. But sometimes the question is public, so that our responses can stir others to thought and decision as well.

To my mind, the most vivid biblical moment where the question – to stay or to go – is public occurs in Chapter Six of John’s Gospel. Jesus tells his listeners that He is the bread of life, the living bread. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. (Jn. 6.53)” Murmuring followed, and many of his disciples concluded, “This is a hard saying; who can accept it? (Jn. 6.60)” Jesus watched many walk away and then said to the Twelve “Do you also want to leave? (Jn. 6.67)”

There it is. Will you stay or will you go? Will you walk with me or not?

Thankfully, Peter spoke words of belief on behalf of all of them, and hopefully for us all well.

That is the clue when we are standing at our own personal thresholds. Dare to believe God first. Include and embrace the community in the decision in some way. Dare to go forward without clarity but with confidence in God and our choices nonetheless. “Another road will take you into a world you were never in. New strangers on the path await, new places that have never seen you will startle a little at your entry...May you travel in an awakened way” (John O’Donohue, To Bless The Space Between Us).


~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, September 8, 2017

"What Do You Want Me to Do for You?"

Dear Friends,

Years ago, a psychologist friend of mine said that the most important thing we can ask someone in need is, “What do you want me to do for you?” It’s so much easier to do something we want to do or to presume we know what the other needs. My most vivid example of getting it wrong was an incident that took place years ago at St. Mary’s Church, where I was a staff member. One of our regulars at weekday Mass was a very senior woman named Brigit. Brigit was Irish-born and most of us found her speech hard to understand. She mumbled for one thing, and sounded as though she had pebbles in her mouth. Brigit wore the most raggedy shoes imaginable. They were sneakers, open and frayed across the top. Concerned Mass-goers said to me, “Get Brigit new shoes. We’ll pay for them.” I did. Brigit seemed grateful, but within days, the sneakers looked the same as the previous pair. Then it came out. We had not really asked Brigit why her shoes looked as they did. Turns out she had painful bunions, and the only way she could tolerate her shoes was to alter them. We had missed the point entirely because we thought we knew but had not asked.

In Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus asked before acting. The three incidents are similar, involving one or two blind men, and in the third case, a blind man named Bartimaeus. Each attracted Jesus’ attention, but Jesus did not presume to help them before they stated their desire. “What do you want me to do for you?” The answer came with conviction. “Master, I want to see.” (Mark 10.51) The implicit became explicit.

In recent weeks, two dramatic stories have borne out the importance of someone inviting others to act in the spirit of Jesus’ words to the blind men, who could be understood as anyone needing help. In the Christopher Nolan film, “Dunkirk,” Winston Churchill called the British fleet of fishermen and pleasure boats that made their home along England’s southern shore to rescue as many British soldiers, stranded, backs against the sea on the beaches of Dunkirk. Once called, the fleet made its way across the Channel to bring home as many as they could. The members of the fleet were not without danger, but the effort went forward so that these soldiers would once again see Britain and stand on its soil.

The other dramatic story is more current. Called by authority to put all boats to the rescue effort in southeast Texas, the Cajun Navy arrived from Louisiana – men with their memory of Katrina still fresh. Once there, the Cajun army asked those they came to rescue, “What can we do for you?” They saved the lives of people and pets, not without danger to themselves.

We really don’t need a disaster or a war to make active in ourselves the example of Jesus of how to initiate generous service to others. We live with family, neighbors, friends, and newcomers to our land who all, at some time or other, need to hear those words from us. “What do you want me to do for you?” Rather than hide behind our locked doors, or avert looking into the eyes of others, we need to ask and then to act. Now is the time.

And then there are the times we are the recipients of the question, the need. Be ready to tell it clearly and be grateful for the ones who have come in the name of God to help.


~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, September 1, 2017

Creating the Future

Dear Friends,

On this Labor Day weekend, let’s put our life’s work – whatever it is – into a God-context.

The local Rochester folk heroine, Hattie Harris, once said something that has stuck in my mind: “Be ashamed.” She said, “be ashamed to die until you have done something life-giving for the community.” Hattie was 101 when she died (08/11/98), honored by young and old alike. People recognized that she lived her words, but her own work of a lifetime in influencing politics and urban life for good was unfinished, just as Moses’ work was unfinished as he died gazing at but never entering the Promised Land.

Still strong at 120, Moses died on Mt. Nebo, in modern day Jordan. Moses, who had led his people for 40 years of struggle through the desert, Moses, who had climbed Mt. Sinai, saw God and received the Commandments, Moses, who trusted God, was not permitted to cross over the Jordan.

“We, too,” says author Tom Cahill, “shall die without finishing what we began. Each of us has in our life, at least one moment of insight, one Mt. Sinai – an uncanny, otherworldly, time – stopping experience that somehow succeeds in breaking through the grimy, boisterous present, the insight that, if we let it, it will carry us through life.”

Stop and think what your own mountaintop experience was and how it gives you courage and energy to go on. Think, if you will, of what you have worked to achieve, where you have added your talents to create the new, what future you build on your past and present. As we take on tasks which are bigger than our lifetimes, we need not be saddened by the apparent lack of completion. Here is how theologian Reinhold Niebuhr puts it: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history, therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing that we do, however virtuous can be accomplished alone, therefore we must be saved by love.”

Faith, hope and love are the God-works in us waiting to be released into the next generation. They are the spiritual tools that God has given us to offer succeeding generations a world that is less violent and profane, more true and loving.

You might be tempted to say as I have been tempted to say “Who- me? I’m little. I don’t have any great influence. My world is small.” Wrong! We are the inheritors of a very large world, and the co-creators of a very large future in which God lives with us all.

Despite our reluctance to see who we are and what we can offer others, God calls us, stirs up in us desires and hope for justice and peace in our day. God wants us to add our piece – our own wonderful, tender albeit tentative piece to the creation of the future. Believers over the centuries have kept their eyes fixed on Jesus to learn how to do this. On this Labor Day weekend, let’s pledge to do the same.


~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Power of Keys

Dear Friends,

From their primitive invention 6000 years ago in Babylon, keys have been important. The power of keys made its way into Scripture as we hear in the readings for this date, the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, A cycle.

Isaiah tells us in the first reading that Shebna held an important post in the king’s palace. He was the chief of staff, the majordomo who controlled access to the king. Think Reince Priebus or John Kelly. The symbol of Shebna’s office was the key he wore on a sash across his shoulder. But Shebna was corrupt, ousted and the key of office was given to Eliakim, who carried out his work responsibly.

In the Gospel of Matthew (16.13), Jesus gives Peter the keys of God’s Kingdom. With them, he can bind or loose, close or open.

The symbol of keys is important in our own lives. We open and close doors for ourselves and others. We encourage loved ones to stretch their wings or we tell them they’ll fall flat if they try. We hold others to heavy, impossible responsibilities or reimbursement, or we are moderate, forgiving, patient. We live on the surface or life and prevent ourselves from growing in depth or we take appropriate risks and dive deep. We have keys to our dwellings, our cars, our mailboxes. Passwords are modern day keys.

Through the priesthood of all believers, and like Peter, you and I have keys to the kingdom. Our own authority is not to be taken lightly.

Beyond our own individual lives, the symbol of keys is also very important. We speak of the key to unlocking a problem or a mystery. Keys to the city are given to important visitors. Emotionally we speak of another person as having the key to someone’s heart. Jailers have keys or know the key-code that locks people away. Keys are also the symbols of adventure. Having car keys for the first time or the giving up of one’s car keys are significant moments in a person’s life.

I once knew a man named Claudius Milburn, a parishioner at St. Mary’s Church where I used to work. Gentle, challenged Claudius had lived for 30 years at the Newark State School. When the state began placing people like Claudius into more normal situations, Claudius came to Rochester. Claudius was a remarkably ardent believer who helped out before and after Mass. One day, something prompted Claudius to say “The day I was released, I said ‘I’m free! I’m free! No one will ever lock me up again.’”

Jesus believed in Peter enough to entrust him with the keys to the kingdom. And what of us? Do we have faith enough to stay with the Lord, though sometimes, like Peter we falter? Do we believe that God believes in us…that God will not take from us the keys of binding and loosing, opening and closing?

As we believe, so shall we live.


~Sister Joan Sobala

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A World of Inclusive Love

Dear Friends,

If we think about the way we live in our country as well as the way the US immigration process is being shaped, it is clear that people are divided into (potential or actual) insiders or outsiders. People are enemies or allies, acceptable or not, Protestant or Catholic, Muslim or Christian, educated or not. Sometimes workers and management see each other in hostile ways. The divisions in Congress are evidence as well that we cut ourselves off from one another by the word “or.” But divisiveness is not of God. In Isaiah, we hear that “the burnt offerings and sacrifices of foreigners who join themselves to me will be acceptable at my altar” (Isaiah 56.6-7). So much of Paul’s letter to the Romans invites us to give up divisions and be reconciled with one another.

Inclusiveness is hard work, even for Jesus. When Jesus crosses the geographic boundary from Galilee into Tyre, he encounters a Syro-phoenician woman who crosses invisible ethnic and religious boundaries to seek healing for her daughter from Jesus. She is a symbol of all those excluded from Jesus’ original mission to the Jews. She called out to Jesus, but he would not answer. But mothers, worldwide, will do anything to achieve their children’s well-being. She speaks her truth in the face of prejudice and would not accept no for an answer. Even the insult Jesus sent her way could not deflect her from her point. In a moment of grace, she deftly turned Jesus’ words into a compliment of sorts, transforming his no into a life-giving yes.

“Lord, help me,” she begged (Matthew 15.21-28), using the same words that Peter spoke as he sank into turbulent waters in the previous chapter of Matthew. Why should Jesus help Peter and not the Syro-phoenician’s daughter? Why indeed? Faced with the Syro-phoenician woman’s insistence and persistence, Jesus experienced a conversion of heart. He moved from being exclusively for the Jewish community to being inclusive. Never again in the Gospel would Jesus’ embrace be narrow.

How narrow are we? Last weekend’s altercation in Charlottesville, VA was the product of right wing groups who believed themselves to be superior to all others and therefore, sure of their rightness, dared to wage a battle against their so-called inferiors. Will we tolerate that way of dividing people one from another? The inclusiveness of Christ needs to reach into backyards, summer festivals, homes and in the centers of national, state and local government. The mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, spoke to his city in early July as the last of four Confederate monuments was removed. He reminded his people “This is not about statues, this is about attitudes and behavior as well. If we take these statues down and don’t change to become a more open and inclusive society, this will all have been in vain.” Mayor Landrieu ended by quoting Abraham Lincoln: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us the right to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and all nations.”

In the name of Jesus, who dared to connect in compassion with the Syro-phoenician woman, let us also serve the cause of inclusive love.


~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, August 11, 2017

Getting Through the Storm

Dear Friends,

It is decidedly a paradox.

God is not in the storm in the story of Elijah who arrives on the mountain in his flight from danger (1Kings19. 9 ff). God is in the storm in Matthew’s account (Mt.14.22-33) where he and Peter meet in the waves – Peter, courageous one moment, afraid and sinking in the next.

God is always where needed, but the way God is present varies. The gentle God of Elijah is the same as the God of Peter in the storm, although it does not seem so.

In a whisper in the mountain silence, God bids Elijah to go back to the place from which he had fled. Peter and Jesus get into the boat, rejoin the others as the storm abates.

We know about storms. Today’s newspaper reports that this will be an especially active hurricane season. We know national devastation from floods induced by downpours, and formidable tornadoes. Our own impossible, personal situations may not be dramatic, but when we’re caught between a rock and a hard place, we are invited by the Gospel to call out to Jesus “help me.” And He in turn will stretch out his hand to rescue us.

A week before my mother, Celia, died, I recall being indescribably weary. The accumulation of Celia’s arduous illness interwoven with my two distinct, simultaneous cancers and a broken leg had pretty much leveled me.

As I got on the elevator at the nursing home that day, I leaned my forehead against the wall and prayed “Dear God, I can’t do this alone today.” A little while later, along came my mother’s brother, Adam, my uncle who had come only three other times in 11 months. I recognized him in that moment for who he was: the outstretched hand of Jesus.

The boat tossed about in the storm has been an image of the church from earliest times. We can also apply the image to other societal situations. We can note that we are in danger of missing the boat – not recognizing what Jesus is calling us to be and do. Our boat is in danger of being overcrowded, as the boats bearing refugees have been overcrowded.

The complicated issues we face as a church, as a nation, as a world are fraught with the same kinds of danger facing floundering Peter. With our mind’s eye, as we sweep across the public ministry of Jesus, we find that he had a way of being alert and active at the very place he was needed most. His last promise in Matthew, before his ascension was “I will be with you always.” (Mt.28-20). We take Jesus seriously, for as God says in Psalm 81 “You called in distress and I saved you.”

The great truth of these stories is that in every time of storm and stress, Jesus, the Holy One, our Brother, will always meet us in the midst of the storm, or speak in the tiniest whisper and offer us whatever we need: peace, staying power, calm and an unfolding future. Whether in a tiny wisp of wind or in a stormy sea, our God comes to us.


~ Sister Joan Sobala