Thursday, January 16, 2020

How do I know I am doing God’s will?

Dear Friends,

Paul begins his First letter to the Corinthians (today’s first reading) by describing himself as “Paul, called by God’s will to be an apostle…”

By God’s will. God’s will is woven into the current of Christian life – Paul’s, yours and mine.
The same idea is on our lips in the Psalm response; “Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will.” John and Jesus certainly did that. We can see how they engaged God’s will in the Gospel.

Most of us find God’s will a mystery. If we think about it at all, we push God’s will out there – remote, fixed, hard as a rock, unyielding, a certainty against which to  match our lives . Yet life as we experience it is so uncertain. We don’t know what this decade will bring. We don’t know if our finances are secure, if the discovery of love will lead to the fullness of love, if our bodies and minds will withstand devastating illness. We don’t know if our country will stand firm on its constitutional foundation and have the courage to choose leadership and reshape national policy for the sake of life. There we have it. Uncertainty interwoven with God’s will.

In the midst of own personal uncertainty about so many aspects of life, how do we recognize God’s will guiding us but not dictating how we live?

Here are five notions that might help. They are not answers but thoughts to encourage us.

1. Important decisions about our lives often come to us unbidden. Have you ever prayed  by day, and the answer came during the night, or in a song on the radio, or on the lips of a stranger?

2. We are given the gifts and resources to do God’s will. Have you looked at some closed chapter of your life and wondered how you ever did what was necessary?

3. Often, by the fruits of our decisions and actions, we can conclude we are doing God’s will.

4. I believe I am doing God’s will when I am no longer the center of my world, and I keep my  place  in the universe in perspective.

5.  As I try to determine in my ever changing, fragile world what this elusive thing called God’s will is, I am part of a community of believers who help, sustain and challenge me in the process.

We have no neat answer to the question,“How do I know I am doing God’s will?,” but the response is written in your heart and mine, even as it was expressed in John and Jesus and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. God’s will is nothing to be resisted. It is the way to life.

-Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Give in for Now

Dear Friends,

Has this ever happened to you?  You’ve walked down the same street day after day, and all of a sudden, you notice lovely artistic details on a building you pass  and say to yourself “I’ve never seen that before!”

That’s the way I felt about a line in today’s Gospel from Matthew for the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus.

I had never seen it before!

John resisted baptizing Jesus. In fact, he refused. “No!” John said. “I should be baptized by you and yet you come to me.” Jesus didn’t coax him with theological arguments or persuasive rhetoric. Jesus did not tell John that he was missing an opportunity, nor did he chide John for his refusal. Jesus simply said  “Give in for now.” Jesus encouraged John saying: “Give in for now.” (Other translations render the phrase  “Allow it for now. ”or “Let it be so for now.”) “ We must do this”, Jesus insisted.. Not “I must do this but we must do this, if we would fulfill all that God requires.”

In this experience, John learned to see Jesus and life and his own call in a new way.

How often you and I find Jesus coming to us in new ways that are unseemly and we also resist. To experience Jesus in a difficult moment, we, too, must “ give in for now”: Be the first to patch up an argument. Work with a cantankerous colleague. Put personal plans on hold and minister to this ill person. Take up an unwanted responsibility. Give in for now.

The mystery of “why us” and “why now” and “why should it be this way at all”  doesn’t go away.
But in giving in for now, we learn to live with mystery and the unexpected calls of God, which are not interruptions  of life but life itself.

We not only learn from John, we learn from Jesus who goes down into the water, is cleansed, and takes to himself the sin of all humanity. When Jesus comes up, he is a tender, sensitive new creation, who, as Isaiah says, will not break the bruised reed or quench the smoldering wick. It was this Jesus, cleansed and newly committed to his mission to whom the voice of God says : “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

This, too, is how we learn. We go down into the waters, let go of sin and self-centeredness and become a new creation in God. Only then we try not to break the bruised reed or put out the smoldering wick.

The challenge, the lesson, the hope of today’s celebration of the baptism of Jesus is that, like Him, we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to do God’s work.

Then, in some unexpected moment, in some startling way, we too will hear the words that urge us on:

“This is my beloved – in whom I am well pleased.”

-Sister Joan Sobala

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Life in the Fast Lane

Dear Friends,

This last month confirms what we already know. In our day, life is a rush. We zoom in and out of parking lots, serve up already prepared foods, tap our fingers impatiently if our computer is slow. Come on! Come on! Move it! We travel in the fast lane.

Speed marks a new division in our world. In addition to the rich and poor, the haves and have nots, we have the fast and slow. The presumption is that faster is better.

Contrast this milieu with that of the Magi. It is estimated  that the  Magi’s  journey took 1 to 3 years, beginning from different places.  A long time to search for truth and meaning. They may have begun before Jesus was born, trusting the star would lead them they knew not where.  They met up with one another at some point and trusted  one another enough to share the secret of their their individual quests. Only then did they choose to travel together. No walls to bar them from going on together.

As learned astrologers, the Magi could have written up their findings about the star in a journal and left the actual search for others. But no, they were moved in their depths to take up the search, and when they finally saw the child, something leapt between them and the child. God in Jesus was casting a loving look of recognition on the travelers.” See I am here for you.” But it was also the travelers recognizing and gazing on the face of God, saying “See I am here for you.” God and the followers of the star gave each other all they had in love.

Epiphany invites us to journey – to be Magi - to follow a star/ an intuition- grace by another name –slowly, painstakingly, as opposed to travelling recklessly in scattered directions.

Epiphany reminds us that, for the most part, God’s revelation or our own experience of God is not abrupt  or sudden. By and large, God’s unfolding in our life is gradual, almost imperceptible, cloaked in the humanity of others as well as our own. It may take years, but we  have  each  others ’ company, if we allow ourselves to share what we have personally been beckoned to.

Epiphany reveals to us that the unknown, that which we discover on our way to our destinations, can and does hold God.

Like the Magi, we don’t come empty handed to the Christ Child. Think today of what you bring this year. What unique gift you bring to honor God and represent who you are.

Let’s not minimize the gifts we bring to the Child who is God Incarnate.

                                May I, O Lord,
                                Become an epiphany,
                                A revelation of my inner self
                                To all who travel in search of You
                                So that we may come to you together.

-Sister Joan Sobala

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Make a Fresh Start

Dear Friends,

On Wednesday we begin not only a new year, but a new decade. Spiritual gurus and pundits encourage us to start fresh, with a clean slate and whatever it takes to make the new year/new decade all it can be.

It’s almost as though we are invited to forget the past with its quirks, victories and defeats. But   Leonard Cohen, in his “Anthem” sets a realistic tone:
                                                “Ring the bells that still can ring.
                                                  Forget your perfect offering.
                                                  There is a crack in everything.
                                                  That’s how the light gets in. “

Yesterday’s issues may or may not be resolved. All may not be right with the world.
The unmanageable is still with us, but we do what we can. Suffering in the world will not cease in a snap. Exclusivity and financial power will still claim the attention of all who think that’s the way to savor the world.

But people of faith have another take on the new year. We believe that the light does come in through the cracks. Through them, we can stare down the hardness of society and the world at large.

We can depend on the light coming through the cracks to see into the gloom and unexpectedly find beauty. We depend on the light to see what needs to be fixed, and restored to its former dignity – to cultivate compassion, peace and sustainability.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was a kind of peace in the world. The  peace  of the Roman Empire. But all the conquered peoples knew that Roman peace did not bring them life in abundance. That would be the gift of Jesus, who through his words and healing. Jesus  brought  believers into kinship with God and one another.

What Jesus did then He does now in our world, in every place and every year. 2020 will be no exception.

But we need to remind one another of His presence and love. We do this is families of faith, our own families and the families we choose to create.

So at the beginning of this new year and decade, fear not. Know with certainty that our loving God is with us as we tend, mend, send, bend, blend, and befriend. Nothing is predictable, except the presence of this God of ours.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, December 19, 2019

God is one with Us, Each and Every One

Dear Friends,

In my file I have a collection of talks and short pieces that fall in the category of “Things I Wish I Had Written.” Among them is an editorial written in 2003 for Maryknoll Magazine by its publisher and editor, Fr. Joseph Veneroso. Here’s part of his Christmas reflection:

                “ After we decorate the tree, write and mail our cards, buy and wrap all our presents and sing all the carols, we should visit a friend or relative who has a newborn baby. We should cradle the infant in our arms. Maybe hold the newborn’s bottle. Sing a lullaby. Better still, change the baby’s diapers.  

                Here is the great mystery of both life and salvation. Any newborn is a breathtaking marvel. But to think that the Creator of the universe would come to us in so small, wrinkled and vulnerable a form defies belief. That {more than} 2000 years ago, a child such as this was none other than God in the flesh boggles the mind.

                Just think: God became truly human, with all our weaknesses and mortality, tempted like us in every way, yet without sin (Heb.4.15). What does this say about God?  More amazing, what does it say about us? Humanity was capable of bearing divinity without melting or exploding, God was not embarrassed or humanity overwhelmed….

                As you hold a baby in your arms, watch a toddler or sigh in exasperation at the rebelliousness of your teenager, consider: Baby Jesus burped and spit up and plopped on his bottom while learning to walk. Toddler Jesus put all sorts of unsavory things into his mouth. And we know from Scripture that teenage Jesus caused great concern to Mary and Joseph. Adult Jesus knew hunger, loneliness, fear and love. He enjoyed companionship and wept at the death of his friend. The Gospels never mention Jesus worshiping in the Temple. His very being was an act of worship; his whole life was lived in constant communion with the Father. God experienced what it means to live and die as a human.

                We, in turn, can encounter God at every moment in the temple of our humanness, if we but cleanse it of sin. We share with God a common vocation: becoming fully human.

                Most of the time, we profess our belief in God.

                Christmas shocks us with the realization that God also believes in us.

To all you who read this,
 and to all you love,
I wish a Christmas made rich this year
 by the realization that God is one with us,
each and every one.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Crystallize what is within You

Dear Friends,

Stop to take a good long look at the image above.  The women are, of course, Mary and Elizabeth, at opposite ends of the family age spectrum, each pregnant and obviously glad to be together as their handclasp signifies. Each had a look of wonderment in her eyes. Symbols of holiness adorn their rounded bellies. We can read their story in Luke 1.39-56.

I found this image while visiting the University of Notre Dame a few years ago. I don’t know the artist’s name, but the picture was used to advertise an Advent bible series. I have brought it out of storage  each year since, because, if I can borrow a phrase from the poet William Wordsworth, this is “the pregnant season”. Wordsworth coined the term in his “Prelude” and  did not use it in a religious context, but it does apply to the here and now because, as we celebrate Christ, who became and becomes  one with us in our humanity, this is indeed a pregnant season, not  only for Mary and Elizabeth, but for us, male and female, in 2019 as well.

At this time of year, we come out of our summer productivity and our fall harvest to become large with expectation. Each of us is pregnant in many ways, this year in ways that are different from other years.

We may  be:
  • pregnant with hope, not giving in to the threat of depression or despair
  • pregnant with newly forming or unresolved questions about life
  • pregnant with the realization that what we bear within us, in our minds and hearts,  waiting to emerge, is not our to keep but to  share, to pass on
  • pregnant with gifts for others – gifts of insight, the works of our hands, words of compassion and encouragement, new ways of looking at reality
  • pregnant with the unexpected and unanticipated but nonetheless worthy to be held tenderly and given to others.

One day, we will give birth, just as Mary and Elizabeth gave birth to Jesus and John the Baptist. crystallizing what is within us for the benefit of others.

Jesus and John the Baptist enriched the world. They said no to whatever diminishes the world’s           goodness.

As the days leap on toward Christmas, scan the horizon of our world, for today, Christ comes to us, borne in Mary who brought the savior to John and his mother.  I hope we can honor one another as Mary and Elizabeth honored each other. This is one way Christmas will be for us remarkably new, and not a backward glance into history.

-Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, December 6, 2019

Reform: Walk with him toward the Light

Dear Friends, 

Tell the truth now.

What would you do if John the Baptist appeared in your world today? Would you be drawn to him as an attractive figure? Would you welcome him if he knocked on your door? More than likely, not.

On the surface, he was an odd man – off putting, unkempt, wild looking. He cared neither about food or fashion. John appeared briefly, spoke forcefully, baptized humbly, died violently.

For many, that sums up John – a fleeting figure in the dustbin of history. But the man and his message are deeper than this passing glance. For Christians, he is a challenge worth engaging.

First of all, consider the man. Each of the Gospel writers presents John in the shadow of Jesus. He was a lesser light – a messenger. How hard it must have been for him – strong,  yet clearly second. Or which of us, having carefully cultivated a group of followers could watch them walk away to follow someone else? By modern standards of success, John was a failure. He died not knowing whether what he said or what he did would bear fruit.

Secondly, consider his message. The message of John can be summed up in one word: Reform. Reform is a time for decision, not apathy, or indifference or mere comfort. The message “reform” can also be translated “Transform your lives.” John doesn’t mean simply change the way you do things. Instead, he means  change your way of thinking and that’s so much harder. Change your way of thinking toward people in need, toward clients and terrorists, toward people who stir up prejudice or dislike in us.

No excuses! It’s not enough that we are Catholic or that Uncle Harry is a priest. Reform is a work that needs our personal attention. And if the reform/ transformation of our life is to be real and lasting, then we must believe we are capable of reform, by activating the wisdom and knowledge – the virtues -  that have been given to us. We also have to believe that the impossible is possible. We can put our hand in the adder’s lair and come out unscathed. The adder will not overpower us. But it’s not all up to us. We  need support and encouragement in our attempt to reform. We can’t do it alone. Paul urges us to accept one another as Christ accepts us. And finally, to sustain the reform of our lives, we need to turn to God in prayer. With God this Advent season, we can turn from being overwhelmed by darkness to seeing that light truly diminishes destructiveness we find in darkness.

This Advent, take John the Baptist by the hand. Walk with him toward the light.  

-Sister Joan Sobala