Friday, February 16, 2018

Facing Our Challengers

Dear Friends,

This is a season when we renew our willingness to accept God’s covenant with us. It is truly God’s covenant, not ours. Covenants are always made by the greater with the lesser. Covenants are not initiated by little people like us, but we are the hands-on beneficiaries of the covenant God makes with His people. On this first Sunday of Lent, we read about the covenant God made with Noah (Gen.9.8-15). The sign and seal of the covenant is the bow in the clouds – what we call the rainbow. If we are not otherwise engrossed, will the rainbow make us pause with delight and awe?

Next week, we’ll hear about God’s covenant with Abraham and the week after that, the covenant expressed in the Ten Commandments.

God’s covenant with us is forever. It takes courage to live out life with God this way, because living it out does not go unchallenged.

We meet the challenger of the covenant relationship with God in today’s Gospel. Satan. Satan is a symbol for anyone or anything, for any relationship or situation, for any interpretation of life or way of thinking that hinders us from becoming what Christ wants us to be: His brothers and sister – alive – active on behalf of goodness in the world.

The challenger pursues us, make no mistake about it.

What are the challengers in my life? Pride? Greed? A hard heart? Alcohol? Drugs? Power? Sex? The need to always be right?

What was the challenger in Nicholas Cruz’s life? Who was complicit is his life that allowed him to have an untreated, unrecognized mental illness? What drove him to kill 17 and wound others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14? He is not alone in his misery. Others are stirred in the same way to do irrevocable damage in people’s lives. People thus inflicted with soul-searing damage need advocates imbued with a covenant spirit to help them overcome their need to kill. 

Today’s gospel (Mark 1. 12-15) tells us that Jesus, who was tempted by Satan in the desert, was not overcome. He went on to teach, preach and heal, to give Himself for all for the forgiveness of sin and for life everlasting. Between Satan in the desert and His Resurrection, Jesus stayed close to His Father. He prayed and loved the One who sent him.

That’s the clue for us: this Lenten season, to stay close to the Father of Jesus, to Jesus Himself and to the Holy Spirit. We can face the challenger only through prayer and in this covenant relationship. With Christ, we will not be overcome. Trust God. Be alert to the challenges that come our way. Believe that Easter will come. Watch for the rainbow.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Beloved of God

Dear Friends,

Just look on the internet. There are any number of jokes, images both serious and funny, and stories about the coinciding of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day this year. You’ll want to know that the last time this happened was 1945 and the next time will be 2029. But what counts as valuable in this unusual combination of the heart and the holy smudge?

On Valentine’s Day this year, one important way to celebrate is to widen our embrace – to be God’s embrace of a people who get it wrong at times, who sin, won’t forgive, refuse to be reconciled with people which is the only way we can be reconciled with God. We are a worldwide community wounded by violence, hatred, lust, self-centeredness and greed. As a Valentine’s Day gift to the world this year, apologize when needed, begin over and be unselfish, be considerate and subdue an unruly temper, put both successes, failures and mistakes into a bigger perspective and love those whom we would rather despise or ignore.

But if Valentine’s Day can be celebrated with a worldwide embrace, it can also be a day to renew and deepen our commitments. Commitment is not a popular word in our society. We seem to prefer grazing, although commitment to our careers seems to be big. If you’ve continued in a relationship with certain people for years, continue to grow together, thank God and find new ways to deepen your bond. If you’ve given yourself to God through a religious commitment, make time to spend with God on Valentine’s Day in a special way.

As for Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s Day, think of this period of time in a new way. This is a time to become more deeply aware of the fact that each of us is loved by God. We are the beloved of God. The holy smudge on our foreheads is a sign of this love. It means to tell the world that we are loved so much that we are asked to participate in the love of Jesus for us, by welcoming his death and resurrection into our own lives. So, throughout Lent, we act our way into this way of thinking and being (I am the beloved of God) until it becomes so ingrained in us that it spills over into the rest of the year. Fasting, almsgiving and prayer, traditional Lenten practices take on a new meaning when thought of in the context of being the beloved of God. Will you remember you are the beloved of God when your body craves satisfaction, when you are powerless or enticed to put cultural toys first?

Another way of grasping the value of these conjoined events is to realize that I am not the only beloved of God. Because of Christ, and through Christ, the people we allow to enter our Valentine embrace also experience a life that is whole and sacred, even when they are unaware of it. Lent is not only about our own growth in God but how we can encourage in others who are also beloved of God the same wholeness we wish for ourselves.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Power of God and Life Over Cancer

Dear Friends,

Lately, I’ve heard quite a few people talking about cancer, so this blog offers some brief, not necessarily connected, thoughts about cancer and the spirituality it takes to live through it, whether we are the victims, or the caregivers/friends of the person suffering. The topic is one we would prefer to ignore in favor of more apparently engaging topics. But plow ahead! Share these thoughts with someone in the throes of cancer or mull them over yourself.

Let God be your consciously chosen partner. As people who have been brought up in a religious tradition or at least with an awareness of our own spirituality, we look to God for consolation, serenity or inspiration in illness. We sometimes feel God’s presence, but not always. Sometimes cancer is so absorbing that we forget to turn to God – God who is with us at every moment – in our anger that we have been brought low and that our body has betrayed us. Maybe we’re full of denial, unreasonably ready to shut out anyone and anything that might help us face our misery and pain.

Laugh when you can. As I walked in for my first round of chemo for ovarian cancer in 1991, I tried to hold on to thoughts from the Scriptures: “If God is for us, who can be against us (Romans 8.31)…You are precious in my eyes and I love you (Isaiah 43.1).” As the first drop of chemo descended from the hanging bag into the tube on its way to my body, I closed my eyes and waited for a spiritual image to come. This is what I heard in my mind: “Hi Ho! Hi Ho! It’s off to work we go!” The song of the seven dwarfs became my own spiritual song that day. I laughed out loud. Spirituality allows us to laugh even in the midst of pain.

What Cancer Cannot Do. About that same time, someone gave me a short piece by the Maryknoll Father Del Goodman. It lists all the aspects of life that are stronger than cancer. You may have others to add.

   Cancer is limited –
It cannot cripple love,
It cannot shatter hope,
It cannot corrode faith,
It cannot destroy peace,
It cannot kill friendship,
It cannot suppress memories,
It cannot silence courage,
It cannot invade the soul,
  It cannot steal eternal life,
It cannot conquer the Spirit.

In short, God’s love for each of us is greater than the cancer that threatens our life. Pass the word on.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, January 26, 2018

Hope vs. Optimism

Dear Friends,

The January 15 issue of TIME magazine bid readers to have an optimistic view of the world. Guest editor Bill Gates wrote that, using 1990 as a benchmark year, the world has experienced less childhood death, less poverty, more legal rights, greater political power for women, less sexual assault of women and a full 90% of children attending primary school. In so many ways, optimists point the way to the good things that happen that are passed over by news reports which focus on the dire and dreadful.

But real or perceived personal or societal bad news happens. How are we in the face of bad news? Does it destroy us? Bring us low? Are we optimistic? Do we have hope?

Both optimism and hope are human responses to life’s challenges, but they are not the same. The optimist holds that the way forward is possible when people do their best together. Hope goes through defeat and death to resurrection. Hope is rooted in God. Optimism is not.

Hope reaches for meaning and value in life. If we have the will to live and grow and become despite all the forces to the contrary, we live in hope, with God as our companion. Moreover, hope has to do with the big picture: life today, tomorrow and life everlasting. That’s how Saint Joseph thought as he contemplated his pregnant wife. “Before closed doors and his own empty hands, Joseph turned to hope: hope that finds a way when there is none” (Sr. M. Madeleva, csj). God is in the hopeful person. One cannot have hope without believing in God. And to hope for one self is to hope for all.

When I think of hope shattered and destroyed, I think of the widow that Jesus stops in the
Streets of Naim as she follows the casket of her dead son (Luke 7. 11-17). Her widowhood brought the pain of being marginalized in her society. The loss of an only son, her last surviving link to the past, would have deepened that misery because it changed her future. When Jesus raised her son from the dead, God had done the improbable and unexpected. His miracle was not just a wondrous happening. It was wondrous happening which restored hope to someone whose life had been shattered. God is in the hopeful person.

Like the Widow of Naim, you and I have mourned our dead. Not just our dead loved ones, but our lives that have appeared dead through loss, pain and upheaval. How do we react when one day we wake up feeling good again, when the laughter of children or the buzz of life is balm for our soul, when things begin to fall into place again and a tentative peace is budding again in our world? Have we recognized these revivified moments as God gift through the hope we bear? Do we embrace hope and go on?

Hope does not exist in the abstract. It is embodied in people and in communities, in the DACA cohort, the Rohinga who fled to Bangladesh and the Mapuche of Chile. Their lives have changed from the security of the routine and the commonplace to the strange and unfamiliar or even simply the new. Yet in the new and unfamiliar, if hope is in them, they find new direction, unity and new life through the God they know in some way.

The hopeful person knows God is with them, through thick and thin, no matter what the optimists or the pessimists say.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, January 19, 2018

Life Together

Dear Friends,

I keep thinking about the Haitians who are on the verge of being sent back to Haiti when their Temporary Protection Status expires later this month. At this very time, there are large numbers of Haitians waiting in Mexico to enter the United States, having fled Haiti through Brazil and then embarked on a long walk from Brazil though Central America. When asked about the closed doors of the United States toward him and other Haitians, one sturdy young Haitian, eating a much needed meal in Tijuana, said with a note of despair, “Life isn’t finished, but hope is.”

Last week, speaking to the world, Pope Francis urged nations to welcome migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons in the spirit of Matthew 25. But President Trump seems to be rejecting select ethnic and national groups from coming to the USA.

How do we make our way through of all of this? As Disciples of Christ, we are called not to abandon one another – our brothers and sisters, whoever they are. And furthermore, we are called not to be passively resigned to the demonic forces in life – not to be fatalistic – but to be committed to justice and reconciliation, compassion and love.

Christians believe that there will come a time when human conflict and misunderstanding will be resolved. We call that time of lasting peace and love “the reign of God” or “the kingdom of God.”

What will the reign of God look like? Feel like? Do we know it at all in our life as we live it or are we committing ourselves to something we will never see on earth?

Yes, we do know the Reign of God in our lifetime, but it will not blossom unless we accommodate our lives to building it. We can catch intimations of what the kingdom of God will be like by studying the sights and sounds of transformation in human interactions. For example, in the last scene from Ken Burns’ Civil War series, soldiers from the blue and gray who had fought in the Battle of Gettysburg gathered together there in the late 1920s. They were all old, feeble and wrinkled. As part of the reunion, they decided to do a reenactment. The Confederates attempted to charge up the hill, but their limps and hobbles didn’t get them far. From the top of the hill, their Union counterparts left their fortifications and made their way down hill. Men from both sides embraced one another, crying and comforting one another. Together they had decided to be part of the change the world needed. A glimpse of the Reign of God.

We become part of the change the world needs by reforming our ways of thinking, speaking, and acting. By standing with the soon-to-be deported and rejected migrants, by letting our congressional delegations know we want to be a country of welcome today as we were in the past. Our attitudes turn into votes, which turn into policy, which turns into what? Life together. An intimation of the Reign of God.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Every Day "Click"

Dear Friends,

Here’s a question to ask at a party when the conversation lags. Ready? “What is one of the most common sounds heard in this century?”

It’s “click.” The light bulb goes on. The radio alarm, the electric razor, the food processor. Click. The MRI machine, copy machine, DVD. Click. On-off. Click. So much of everyday life involves a click.

Yet there are things in life that do not click on and off, like steadfastness, caring and generosity.

Then, too, some things begin when we are unaware of them and move into our consciousness and emotions, for better or worse, there to be harbored or cultivated – like attitudes toward people whose color is different from ours or enhancing our daily living by a series of “must haves.”

Take relationships for example. Surely we can say that he/she and I clicked immediately when we met – but if the relationship is to grow after that, what’s needed? Work, that’s what.

The relationships of our lives – relationships with God or people, require staying power and work, and that work requires openness.

Jesus was open to the people he met along the way – even those who eventually showed themselves to be his opponents. He was open to their questions, their need for healing, their hesitant hearts. Some came and stayed. The American Presbyterian Clergywoman Rachel Strubas says of the leper whom Jesus cured that “he was rehumanized by Jesus’ touch.” Others came and sipped from the cup of life. Others poured out the water of life on the earth and walked away. But Jesus remained open, never withholding Himself from others, even on the cross.

How open we are? Do we really listen to what others are telling us or are we preparing our response instead of listening? Or do we grow weary of hearing the stories of the pain of others and tune them out? Do we take in what others offer by way of gift or suggestion or are we limited by our own tastes and desires? Do our minds and hearts have narrow borders that we prefer not to cross? Do we go out into the world and treasure its adventures or does fear of the unknown hold us back?

It’s a new year. Unexpected things may click in us. How open are we to them?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, January 5, 2018

Following the Word of God

Dear Friends,

We know the key figures in the Epiphany: the Holy Family, the wise men and Herod. Don’t leave out Herod, for he represents darkness in the story. Herod is the counterpoint to the others and helps us understand the difference between self-serving power and cooperation with God.

This Herod, one of several to bear that name in the Gospels, knew from the wise men and from his own priests and scholars the ancient prophecies about the long-awaited savior who would come to set God’s people free. Instead of seeing this as a moment of grace and redemption for his people, Herod found the Newborn to be a threat, fearing that the Holy One who had come would now unseat him. In his rage, Herod massacred the children under two years of age who lived in the area. Great sorrow was in the land, but Herod didn’t care.

Mary, Joseph and the wise men, on the other hand, had been attentive to the Word of God that came to them through messengers and dreams. They listened and they obeyed. They made a decisive response to the invitation of God. There was no law given for them to obey. Rather, it was what they heard in the depth of their being that moved them to do what was being asked of them. They heard and obeyed.

Obedience is not a popular term today. We Americans don’t like to be told “Do this. Don’t do that.” This is a caricature of obedience. We say we prefer dialogue, thank you, and then prefer to be left alone, each of us to our own opinion. After all, we argue, adult self-direction is best. But in this Epiphany account, we are given a new way to understand how compelling obedience really is. The wise men had their dream. So did Joseph. The messages they were given were unenforceable. No one made them act, but they all knew what they needed to do and they…did…it.

We are invited by the story to be obedient as Mary, Joseph and the wise men were, and Herod was not. Without benefit of a law, we know that, at times, we must do something…to act in some hitherto unexpected, life-giving way. No one else knows it. It’s unenforceable, but we know and we have a choice. Will we do it or not?

Christian history is full of women and men who stood firm and did not capitulate to the Herods of their day – not just martyrs, but ordinary people who in their own way stood up to destructive powers in obedience to a higher call.

This year, 2018, new Herods will arise and maybe some old ones will return – personal Herods who want to destroy individual lives or macro-Herods, whose selves are so huge that nothing else matters in the world.

When these things happen, stand firm. Listen to the dream. Go where it tells you. Do not tarry. Do not be afraid. Be Epiphany people.

~Sister Joan Sobala