Friday, March 23, 2018

Celebrating Holy Week

Dear Friends,

In one breath, we call today Palm Sunday – a time when we join in the contagious spirit of the spontaneous, disorganized crowd that welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem.

In another breath, we call today Passion Sunday, for we remember Jesus’ anguish. Abandoned by his friends, rejected by the people, he died the death of a criminal.

This day pulls us in two directions. We hope against reason that Jesus (and we for that matter) can win approval for His vision without suffering for it and we are touched deeply by his rejection.

Much of our life is pulled in two directions. It’s spent somewhere between triumph and tragedy. In order not to be swayed unduly by our own triumphs or overwhelmed by our own tragedies, we need to learn from Jesus this week. As Paul tells us, we need to make Jesus’ attitude our own (Philippians 2.5).

In Jesus, the crowd expected the long-awaited savior who would bring back Israel’s political and economic glory.

The people’s expectations were mirrored in those of the disciples. They had hoped that Jesus’ victory was imminent. The high expectations of the disciples and the crowd would plummet into despair in the next few days. Most would abandon Jesus, betray Him, be indifferent to Him.

And what of Jesus? What did he expect as He viewed the people from the colt’s back or later from the cross? He expected the faithfulness of God – His Abba. Though Jesus did not know what lay before Him from moment to moment, he was confident that God would see Him through and it was this expectation that would see Him through.

The disciples and the crowd expected triumph to come on the heels of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. It didn’t happen. They expected nothing more after Jesus’ death on the cross. But triumph surprisingly came – life breaking through death.

You and I as followers of the Risen Lord, see Holy Week washed in the light of Easter. Easter celebrates Jesus risen to new life. Easter means that life is to be transformed, never to be snuffed out.

And because we know this, believe this, our own expectations about life and death can be altered.

The stark contrast between the true and ardent Christian and those obsessed by what the world has to offer is highlighted this week. The world tells us to expect to have more, to have better, to be beautiful and successful. It tells us to hoard all we own and own all we can.

But Jesus tells us by His actions that, in the midst of suffering, contradiction and loneliness, we can expect the faithfulness of God and ultimately salvation, joy and the transformation of life. Let us attend to Him this week and make his attitude our own, the attitude that trusts God through the bleakest of times.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, March 16, 2018

God's Inspiring Love

Dear Friends,

I confess that you are never far from me. Last week, while on vacation, was no exception. I looked for inspiration for this blog in the stories people told about themselves, and how their stories intersected with the single greatest truth we live with during this Lenten season, namely that God’s love of us is freely given, precedes and embraces us before we even begin to love God. We heard this in last Sunday’s readings: “By grace you have been saved by faith and this is not from you; it is a gift of God”(Ephesians 4.9). And this week, that realization is given to us in Jeremiah 31.33, “I will be their God and they shall be my people.”

God loves us, inspires goodness and fidelity in us long before we feel the inspiration – even before we can name it or understand it. 

So here are my vacation stories that hold these truths.

A successful Rochester business man’s company outgrew its space. Victor, with its many innovative, small companies, looked like an attractive choice. But then, the man thought about his 35 workers, most of who lived in the city. It would be a hardship for them to get to Victor. The company ultimately moved to a place where the workers did not have to go far, even though the owner had to drive farther. Did this man allude to God’s love as the reason to move his plant closer to his workers? Probably not.

Another businessman from Georgia sold his company and was looking for the next investment, when someone told him about a company that was failing. The man investigated and told his wife that the company he visited was doing many things wrong. Soon, the 50 workers would be jobless. The man’s wife told him that this was the right time to buy it. He did and turned it around, increasing benefits for the workers and producing a reputable product. Did this man think of God as he went through the restoration of this company? Probably not.

After dinner one night, two other men were talking about their marriages. Each of them had been married over 50 years and one of them was a recent widower. They talked about the contributions each of them had made to their marriage, what their wives had meant to them over the years and how unaware they were that God’s grace through the sacrament of marriage really enfolded them. Was the God in their marriage part of their thinking? Probably not.

None of these people thought to name God’s love, given to them first, as the inspiration for their moral choices in business and their faithful, abiding love in marriage. Nonetheless, for each person in these life stories, the grace (a.k.a. God’s active love) was given unconditionally.

So too with us. As we live out these last weeks of Lent and move into Passiontide and Easter, let’s find in our own stories the way God’s love has inspired us to treat others with love and respect, valuing them and letting them know it. God loves us upfront, without hesitation, never making that love conditional on our own response. The proof of God’s love is in Jesus’ gift of himself.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, March 9, 2018

Embracing the Nighttime

Dear Friends,

Nighttime is precious – for dreams as well as for restorative sleep. Yet so many other things happen at night. Children experience things that go bump in the night. Adults find that some thoughts come to us with clarity in the night. We wake up at two o’clock and the problem is solved or the insight is given. Still others of us prowl around at night.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night (John 3). He needed the darkness, lest he be seen – lest he be wrong about Jesus. But in those profound conversations with Jesus, Nicodemus began to understand Jesus as the one sent by God as the way to eternal life. A whole new world opened up for Nicodemus – a world he would never have anticipated. Jesus was the unexpected one for Nicodemus.

Is He the unexpected one for us?

In a sense, we expect Jesus to be our savior. After more than 2000 years of Christian history, it’s in our hearts and souls. We expect Him in the Eucharist, in the Scriptures, in prayer.

It’s the unexpected Jesus who is harder to recognize, and there are impediments to recognizing Him.

Thomas Merton, the unconventional Trappist spiritual writer, offers us an intriguing insight as to why Jesus is hard to recognize in the world today. It’s especially appropriate to consider his words during Lent.

“The most pervasive form of contemporary violence that we experience is nothing less than overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form of violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to so many demands, to commit oneself to many projects, to want to help everyone in everything destroys our inner peace. The frenzy of life kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful…”  

Overwork neutralizes our ability to recognize our God, the unexpected one, who comes to us not in the security of traditional prayer, but out there –  in the midst of life’s experience. We can enter into this time of engaging Jesus only if we slow our pace and open ourselves to God’s tenderness. Let it seep into our minds and hearts.

Let’s model ourselves on Nicodemus who was invited through his nighttime conversation with Jesus to readjust his thinking about who the Messiah might be. Lent is the time for our own conversation with Jesus under the cover of night. How will this happen for any of us?

I don’t know, but you will recognize it when it happens. We don’t control God, but God awaits our openness in unexpected moments, in unforeseen encounters. Befriend the darkness where you can meet the Holy One.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, March 2, 2018

Our Passionate God

Dear Friends,

At various moments in the Old Testament, God gives us glimpses of who He is. Today, in the first reading from Exodus, God tells His chosen People: “I am a jealous God.” But Scripture scholars say the word “jealous” is an inaccurate translation. The more accurate word, the telling word is “passionate.” God burns with desire for the people He has created. What a remarkable, humbling thought!

The passionate God of all people and all times is most fully present in Jesus, as he is revealed in the Gospel. The disciples must have been horrified when they saw Jesus charging into the temple, tipping over the tables of the money-changers, driving out traders and scattering animals – a forceful and frightening scene. So unlike the Jesus they had come to know!

Just when we are comfortable ourselves, Jesus may well come crashing into our lives, challenging us to sweep out anything that hinders our relationship with God.

Jesus, the passionate God, doesn’t want us to be laid back about what really matters in life.

But what really matters? He told us: The wholehearted love of God and one another…no exceptions.

In these troublesome national and international times, we are tempted to close ranks – to love and protect those close to us, those who belong to us. We erroneously label some people enemies, and treat them as such. Turbulent times will take their course, but we must make our own course.

In the first reading today, we are given the foundation – the very least we can be and do as we make our course through life. Our passionate God says: live out the commandments.

The commandments are not 10 suggestions, not 10 burdens. They are not the ideal or the best we can do in life. They are the very least we can do to be on course to love our God and our neighbor wholeheartedly. It’s the work of a lifetime to try to hold people close and to treasure our beautiful world as God does.

A few years ago, I stood on a boardwalk over the sand dunes at Cape May, NJ, and watched a storm build up over the place where the Delaware River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The thunder crashed, lightening sliced the sky and the winds flung voracious waves against the shore.

A little way off, to my left, on one of those high wooden chairs that lifeguards use, sat a man holding his small daughter. They were huddled under a blue slicker, their faces rapt as they experienced the storm. The little girl, secure in her father’s arms, showed no fear, but only awe.

I hold that image in my heart these days, for it pictures nothing less than God, holding us close…all of us, refugees and immigrants, people trapped in the violence of Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa, Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. God, passionate about us, without exception. What will our response be?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Mountains of Life

Dear Friends,

The Olympics have given us a sense of what it means to go to the mountain. The downhill slalom and giant slalom races and the “pipes” have been held on steep, treacherous, unyielding courses, where only the most skilled and daring finish the course. Sometimes the wind on the mountains hampered events, sometimes the mountain itself defeated its would-be conquerors.

Important things, symbolic things happen to people on the mountains of life.

Abraham thought he went to the mountaintop to do the unthinkable – to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, his heir, the bearer of the future. Human sacrifice was practiced widely in the ancient world. People really thought that such practices were pleasing to God. Some commentators say that the story of Abraham and Isaac was meant to put an end to human sacrifice. That is the usual interpretation of this horrific story. We want to say “we’ve moved beyond that!” But have we? Don’t governments and people sacrifice one another for causes that are judged to be worthy?

On another mountaintop, centuries later, there was another son – a Beloved Son, who went up the mountain for some respite from work. There was an uneasiness in Peter, for earlier, in one breath, he acknowledged Jesus as the messiah and in the next breath, he had denied that Jesus would have to suffer and die. Peter and Jesus each had their own thoughts as they climbed the mountain.

There, Jesus was transformed. He was radiant, glorified, honored once more by His Father as He had been at the Jordan after His baptism by John. Peter, James and John were told to listen to this Beloved Son.

Lent calls us to listen to God, to obey and to offer, like Abraham and Jesus, all that we are and have. You and I could name the Isaacs of our lives that we have cherished and have had to give up. We haven’t necessarily recognized the ways in which God has returned them to us. We’ve also had transfiguring moments, when the Glory of God has shone in us or on others we have witnessed transfigured, and we have forgotten them. Now is the time to remember.

As we wonder what will happen to us as we go up the mountains of our own lives, let’s also remember His message to us: Take care of one another. Love one another. Be kind. Let your heart go out to the stranger as well as the friend. Sometimes, be heroic, if that’s what called for. Decide what is more important than life itself. Act on it.

Jesus tells us that we will not be overcome on the mountain.

~Sister Joan Sobala

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