Friday, July 20, 2018

Being the Peacemaker

Dear Friends,

There is an essential difference between conflict and violence. Conflict is a given in our lives – we can use it to hone our thinking and being, or we can turn it to harm. Violence, on the other hand, is of its nature hostile and destructive of others. Our world is full of violence – people to people, people to animals and animals to people. The end product of violence is death – not always physical death, but death in some way. We inflict violence on others even when we don’t know we are acting in a hostile way. Let me tell a story, by way of illustration.

One late spring day, several years ago, I was on retreat at the Benedictine Monastery near Elmira. The monks raised sheep to earn a living. On this late afternoon, I was sitting on a bench overlooking a field of sheep and very young lambs, being playful after supper. From behind me, I heard a "whoosh." I knew the sound and that a hot air balloon was overhead – a beautiful gold and white balloon, brilliant against a vivid blue sky, filled with people obviously enjoying the ride.

The pilot lowered the balloon until the basket skimmed over the field, just above the lambs and sheep. The harassment – for that is what it was – caused the animals to run, bleat pitiably, flee from an unknown assailant, panic, and trample over each other. It is documented that sheep can die of fright.

I don’t think for a moment that the pilot was deliberately malicious. He was unthinking, daring, out to give his passengers their money’s worth. But, he did violence to these innocent creatures.

The peacemaker does no violence in word or deed.

Paul learned that truth from the eyewitnesses who walked with Jesus. Jesus is the peace between us, the apostle writes in the section of Ephesians we read today. Peace-making and peace-valuing were true and apparent in Jesus’ life. No one, not even His enemies, suffered violence from Him in word or action.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus proclaimed in his beatitudes, “for they shall be called the children of God.”

While he did no violence to anyone, violence took away Jesus’ life. Yet, in keeping with who He had been all his life, Jesus’ first words to his disciples in the upper room after His resurrection were “Peace to you.”

This summer, in our play, travels, picnic conversations, and hot air balloon rides, let us do no violence to anyone or any living creature. The entire Church – you, me, everyone – is entrusted with peace-making.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, July 13, 2018

God's Rainbow

Dear Friends,

I’m just back from a brief vacation, and I have to say that I was thoroughly absorbed in what I saw and heard all week long. All of what I saw or heard was commentary on Psalm 85. 11, 13, which is part of today’s responsorial psalm – people working together, the land being generous in its produce:

Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
The Lord himself will give his benefits;
our land shall yield its increase.

I saw this psalm in apparently isolated incidents last week, like the rainbow in the water below as the storm clouds gathered in the south. Yes. A rainbow in the water is something I had never seen before. God’s rainbow can be anywhere that it can remind us of God’s saving ways, his benefits, as the psalm says. Then there were the vineyards on the hillsides, in that part of their summer growth where they send tendrils up into the sky, reaching up to embrace the sun, the rain and the future.

The serenity of the Finger Lakes is good for the soul. So is the outcome of the drama in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand.

What started out as an adventure for 12 Thai youth and their coach could have ended in complete tragedy. But all 13 were found and rescued, as were the doctor and the last divers in the cave. While I mostly prayed for the 13 and the international crew involved in the rescue, my mind occasionally drifted off to see this whole event as a metaphor for our own lives.

We travel with others, and sometimes deviate from the beaten path with colleagues whom we have chosen or who have been given to us. We encourage one another to try this turn, this opening. We adventure into the unknown, and unknown to us, the waters rise and entrap us.

We are confounded by deep water and darkness, poised on a ledge awaiting what? We don’t know. We are between hope and despair. We cannot rescue ourselves, but must depend on the skill and resources of others who don’t know us, but who care deeply for human beings without distinction.

Scenes like these help us realize at a very deep level that we are in God’s hands as well as in the hands of others to see us through. We need them to swim with us out of the caves where we have voluntarily gone, but which have entrapped us. And what will we do afterwards? To what will we commit ourselves after surviving a potential tragedy of our own making? Will we dare go to the next people trapped in one of life’s caves and help in whatever way we can? Or will we take the new life given to us and hoard it? What virtues will kiss in our life? What increase will be in us for the glory of God?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The True Meaning of Greatness

Dear Friends,

Over lunch recently, my friend, Maria, regaled me with stories from her 50th high school reunion. The prophecies produced in their senior year had been found. The text, which had remained unattended to in someone’s attic for all those years, was now reviewed for all to hear. The class, as a whole, was slated for a tremendous future. There would be executives, professor, stars, renowned scientists and great entrepreneurs.

The recounting was funny, but if the truth be known, the prophecies would not even have been what Maria and her classmates wanted for themselves. Their experience – and ours – is probably closer to that of Jesus in today’s Gospel. Like Jesus, Maria, you and I have had to endure the typical hometown response “What? Oh! That’s only Bill, Sue, Carol, Tim, Maria. Nothing special!”

What is greatness anyway? And who decides what constitutes greatness? Is it having prestige, authority, lots of money? Is it being number one, no matter what it takes to get there? Society would say: Go for it!

But Jesus never said these were the important things in life. Jesus said: the person who wishes to be great ought to be willing to serve the rest. In other words, if you want to be first, be willing to be last. In Jesus’ eyes, the person who achieves greatness is the one who stands with the poor, the stranger, the outcast, the immigrant, the lonely.

Listen to what Mahatma Gandhi says of greatness: “It is not the critic who counts, nor the individual who points out how the strong person stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the one who is actually on the arena; whose face is marred by sweat and dust, who strives valiantly, who errs and may fall again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who does know great enthusiasm, great devotion; who spends oneself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of great achievement and at worst, if failing at least fails while daring greatly, so that this person’s place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”

Paul in today’s second reading also speaks words to which we can relate. “Three times I begged the Lord to take this cross from me, each time God replied, ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’” Paul, with his ever-present companion God, came to realize that “When I am powerless, then I am strong.”

The power of the weak makes sense only in the God context. Jesus knew this. O did Paul. I hope we do, too. Together, let’s encourage one another not to be afraid to hear God’s Word, then speak it to a needy world.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, June 29, 2018

Justice For All

Dear Friends,

From our very beginning as a nation, the United States has been both visionary and flawed. The American dream was liberty and justice for all, but “all” definitely did not include blacks and women. “Remember the ladies,” Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John. She knew and he knew that “all” meant white men.

On the Fourth of July this year, we can celebrate that blacks and women have made some progress achieved through Constitutional Amendments. But barriers to the black vote haunt them at the voting machines, and there is no equal pay for equal work. The Equal Rights Amendment remained an unresolved issue.

Now, immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers are at our borders, and we know how badly they and their children are being treated. Abigail Adams would weep. The founding vision of liberty and justice for all seems not to be treasured by many who now live under its broad canopy. White is better or more to the point, white is supreme. While Jesus said, “Let the children come to me,” powerful forces in our government say, “When the children come to us, we will separate them from their parents who have fled the violence in their homelands.” After all, it is erroneously said: their parents have broken the law. And we complain that ISIS used children as tools of destruction.

As our nation’s founding events are celebrated this week, as Americans, let us look at ourselves frankly and let us Christians look at ourselves in the light of the Gospel. We recognize that, whatever ethnic, ethical, religious heritage is ours, we are called to shape our individual characters and the character of our nation so that all can build a future full of goodness and hope, respecting the dignity of every man, woman and child. David Brooks, in The Road to Character tells us about the inner work we must do to become who we are called to be at our deepest level. While he speaks of the individual, we can also say this of our nation: “Although we are flawed creatures, we are also splendidly endowed. We are divided within ourselves, both fearfully and wonderfully made. We do sin. But we also have within us the capacity to recognize sin, to feel ashamed of sin, and to overcome sin. We are both weak and strong, bound and free, blind and far-seeing. We thus have the capacity to struggle with ourselves…We wage our struggles in conjunction with others waging theirs…” (pp.262, 265)

Thank God that, around the country in these days of immigration disintegration at our southern border, ordinary people of extraordinary character are standing up to say no – by their refusal to use our nation’s goods and businesses to further this cruelty to children, by gathering in protest, by using their talents to help legally and psychologically, by their financial donations, phone calls to Congress and prayer. In our land, good people will do good things and good will prevail, even though no end is in sight. That is the belief of people of God – Christians, Jews, Muslims, humanists and those who have no declared religious convictions. On this Wednesday, the Fourth of July, Independence Day, may we commit ourselves to the shaping of our characters and our lives in community, so that good may prevail.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, June 22, 2018

Finding Refuge



Dear Friends,

On morning newscasts every day, we hear something about refugees, migrants, immigrants – people on the move not because they want an adventure, but because they believe they need to move on for the sake of life. They let go of their local histories and plunge into unknown places, hoping they and their loved ones survive and ultimately thrive. They are filled with fear and hope colliding with each other in their minds and hearts. The stories of children separated from parents at our southern border are especially painful to think about. Without doubt, the children will be scarred for life. This is abuse.

Since December of 2000, the United Nations has observed June 20 as World Refugee Day, to raise public awareness about refugees and their status throughout the world. The world’s people are of two minds about the refugees who come to their shores. This short poem, by British poet Brian Bilston, invites us to read the poem from top to bottom for one of these viewpoints and from bottom to top for the alternate view. Same words. Completely different take on how to treat refugees at our door.

                                               “Refugees                                          
                                                They have no need of our help
                                                So do not tell me
                                                These haggard faces could belong to you or me
                                                Should life have dealt us a different hand
                                                We need to see them for who they really are
                                                Chancers and scroungers
                                                Layabouts and loungers
                                                With bombs up their sleeves
                                                Cut-throats and thieves
                                                They are not
                                                Welcome here
                                                We should make them
                                                Go back to where they came from
                                                They cannot
                                                Share our food
                                                Share our homes
                                                Share our countries
                                                Instead let us
                                                Build a wall to keep them out
                                                It is not ok to say
                                                These people are just like us
                                                A place should only belong to those who are born there
                                                Do not be so stupid to think that
                                                The world can be looked at another way.”

Lord, protect all refugees in their search for renewed life, especially the children. May they find me open to welcome them to America. May they find support in me as I have found refuge in You. Amen.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, June 15, 2018

Our Fathers

Dear Friends,

Happy Father’s Day to all of you who do what a father does.

But what is that, anyway? Biologically, we know how men become fathers. But like motherhood, fatherhood is much, much more. Men become fathers through a lifetime, weaving a path from home to work, providing encouragement and the other things children need to live and grow, spending time with their children and, like mothers, nurturing their children, challenging their children – certainly – but offering them security and freedom as each is needed.

I remember my own Dad, Connie, teaching me to dance when I was four, developing in me a sense of direction and teaching me how to read a map. He was always enthusiastic for family travel. Dad declined positions of advancement at work because he didn’t want work to overcome life with his family.

Each of us has memories of our fathers – some incidents, some words, some life lessons they taught us.

Many of us have warm positive memories and experiences of our fathers, but not all. Some of our fathers were disinterested; others were abusive, self-centered, governed by substance abuse or driven to succeed at all costs. Some have pushed their children to be what they, the fathers, want them to be. All of this is the stuff of novels, engrossing movies and – life.

Social scientists, psychologists and other experts in life issues help men to understand their relationship with their children, but men don’t learn the meaning of fatherhood only from other people. Each man also needs to look to God for a deepened understanding of fatherhood.

Jesus called His father Abba. Through the years of His own life, Jesus drew closer and closer to His Abba, and as he did so, his conviction grew that this was the appropriate name for the God of His relationship.

Our work is not to call God Father, but to study our relationship with God and come to our own appropriate name for the Holy One who never deserts us. Perhaps it will be Father.

In my bulging files, I have a quote from an interview a French journalist named Jean Guitton had with Pope Paul VI, who will be canonized this October. The portion of the interview I saved was where Pope Paul talked about the fatherhood of the whole Catholic community he felt as pope. What he said can be taken to heart by other fathers as well. “I think that of all the functions of a Pope the most enviable is that of fatherhood...Fatherhood is a feeling that invades the heart and mind, which accompanies you at all hours of the day; which cannot grow less but which increases as the number of children grows; which takes on breadth, which cannot be delegated, which is as strong and delicate as life, which only stops at the final moment…Would you believe it? It is a feeling which does not weary…which refreshes from fatigue.”

To the fathers who read this: May you not grow weary. May your heart be full of wonder at your children. May you turn to the Abba of Jesus for courage and sustenance each day.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Power of Community

Dear Friends,

The spring season of the programs at our Motherhouse called Fresh Wind in Our Sails concluded recently with a program about opioid abuse. Among the speakers were two young adults who are thankfully in recovery. Each of them included in their personal reflections the fact that as they sank deeper into narcotic use, they also experienced isolation from others: family, spouses, friends and colleagues. Only in recovery did they begin to recognize their need for community where they would be accepted as vulnerable, fragile people who needed others to accompany them in their growth. In saying what they did, these young people, suffering from a potentially disastrous illness, gave witness to the power of community – a thought we bypass or easily forget in our daily lives. It’s easy to see why. In our culture, independence and self-sufficiency are regarded as paramount to a successful life. Interdependence and belonging have little or no place.

We don’t need to live in each other’s pockets, but we do need the support of others to grow. We also need to give support to others to strengthen them and to build a future.

When we think more generally about the vulnerable whose lives have faltered or which have fallen apart, we come to realize that the value, presence and role of community has changed or disappeared in them. The vulnerable may think that no one needs them or wants them. What they don’t know is that there are communities who both want them and need them. What they also need is an invitation in the Spirit of Jesus to “come and see.”

Jesus did not save us from destruction one by one. His whole mission was to build a community that would welcome people and thereby shelter them, heal them, enrich their confidence in their call to be one with God, and send them forth to do the same for others. For Him, the ultimate community was the Reign of God or the Kingdom of God. Jesus even showed us how to do the work of building community. The secret is in the Beatitudes and in Matthew 25 “Whatever you do…”

Community demands certain things of us: listening, negotiation, openness, staying power, conviction that the Spirit speaks through each of us, goodwill, good humor and a sincere desire to be one in the Spirit of Jesus, even though we might not be sure what that means. Be with. Spend time with. Accept what the other offers by way of insight or challenge. Give in kindness.

Summertime offers a unique set of opportunities to be with apparent strangers whose lives need to be gentled and received into our communities even as ours do. Summer is also a season for increased consciousness that all of what we say of community is true. Summer holds the potential for community building, if we only take our eyes off of ourselves and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. He will show the way to welcome or go to others. Jesus understands the power of community as no one else does.

~Sister Joan Sobala