Monday, December 5, 2016

Thinking Outside the Box

Dear Friends,
The American public has just witnessed success and failure played out in our national, state and local elections. Now, in this time before Christmas, Christians celebrating Advent are given John the Baptist, the man and the message to consider. By today’s political standards, John, the man, was a failure – a loser. He was never first. His followers left him. He lost his life. He died not knowing whether what he said or did would bear fruit. Yet he stands out in the Gospel, and has lessons for us as no other.
John’s greatness can’t be measured by success or failure. It was his sense of perspective that made John a giant in the realm of faith. He knew he was part of a reality much bigger than he, and was open to the unknown. He had a critical role to play in preparing the way for Jesus, but he was not the whole drama.
This is our story, too. As we review our year as people are wont to do in December, we recognize elements of success and achievement – highlights for which we can be grateful. We also experienced down times, maybe even rejection and disappointment. In some ways, we have entered into the unknown. John encourages us to look at the bigger picture. Suppose that, taking our cue from him, we open ourselves to understanding who Jesus is and who we are in relationship to Him. Only then, our perspectives on truly important things can change.
John’s message to anyone who would listen is to personal conversion. By that, John doesn’t just mean to do things differently. In fact, he means to change our way of thinking and that’s much harder to do, isn’t it? Patterns of thought die hard. We are called to reform our thinking toward our relationship with God and the many people and problems in our contemporary world. Then we can act in new ways. It’s only when we dare to think outside our own personal box that we can help this world of ours move toward the reign of God. What can we do personally to reform ourselves first? That’s worth considering this week as we let John the Baptist influence us in our growth as people who share life and faith.
The paradox of John’s life could well be the paradox of our own: recognizing that as we walk in the footsteps of Jesus, we really don’t end up being less in the process.
Going back to last week, the first week in Advent, I hoped that each of us could practice cherishing people as God cherishes us: people who are strangers, people who revolt us, people upon whom we would cast a judgment if we dared. In case you haven’t had a chance to make a list for every day of this week, here are some to consider:
                                            Dec.5  guests and volunteers in our area soup kitchens and shelters
                                            Dec. 6 firefighters, the deceased and dispossessed as a result of natural 
                                                        disasters in Tennessee and Alabama and other places in the South
                                            Dec. 7 military veterans from countries around the world
                                            Dec. 8 expectant mothers and fathers
                                            Dec. 9 adversaries and those caught up in the fighting in Aleppo and Mosul
                                            Dec. 10 blood donors and blood recipients
                                            Dec. 11 victims of abuse and their abusers

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, November 28, 2016

Cherishing the People of the Earth

Dear Friends,
Beginning yesterday, our churches were dressed in subdued colors – shades of blue and light lavender with some pink woven in. This ambiance signaled the First Sunday of Advent. Unless we go to Mass weekly, unless we light a special set of Advent wreath candles to our homes, unless we have homes festooned with our own touches of blues and light lavender with streams of pink woven in and hold off the merry reds, we will not even know it is Advent – a time of preparation for the celebration of Christ’s coming into the world. The world at large skips Advent. The Christmas rush of shopping, baking, parties and a long list of “to do’s” is happening already. Christmas Carols have been playing in our malls for some time now. We’ll get tired of them soon. Christmas reds and ivy green and twinkling lights distract us from preparing our hearts for Christmas.
The Evangelist John says in the prologue to his Gospel, verse 1.14, that the Word leapt into the world and pitched his tent among us. The Word became human in Jesus, who has loved and cherished us endlessly, undeniably and intensely. So why not emulate Jesus and prepare for Christmas by spending these four weeks cherishing the people of the earth, day by day.
Get out a calendar page for November 28 to December 24. Fill in some days with the name of someone/some group that you will think of, pray for and cherish for the whole day in Jesus’ name. Leave some days blank so that newcomers who enter the theatre of life this month can be included with their story of unexpected pain, success shared, newness, revelation and hope. Reach wide. Jesus came to save the world. He excluded no one. Nor should we.
Here’s a sample week of people to cherish:
                November 28                    refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean
                November 29                    school children and their families
                November 30                    our grandparents and the great lessons we learned from them
                December 1                       people who are working to make America welcoming for all
                December 2                       the newest members of our family (babies, newbies through      
                                                             marriage and friendship)
                December 3                       the opioid addicted and those who love them 
                December 4                       the deceased in today’s obituaries
The point is not to just remember these people with our thoughts, but to cherish them in our hearts…to hold them close, be with them and for them, as Jesus, the Incarnate Risen One is. God loves each and every person with a tenderness beyond words. God has been and is faithful to us, has and does put aside our sin and knows us for what we are at our very core: redeemed children of an embracing God. To be like God is to cherish all people in our daily lives all year long. We practice this way of being Godlike during this Advent season, as we prepare to celebrate the Word who has leapt into our world and finds himself very much at home among us.
~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, November 21, 2016

Deepening Our Gratitude

Dear Friends,
What do you say to someone who thanks you for a kind word, a thoughtful gesture or unexpected encouragement? Most often heard in the public square today is the response “No problem!” This phrase is really a throwaway, isn’t it? It may well be that both the giver and the receiver of thanks are distracted – not really present to one another.
What ever happened to “You’re welcome?” This response “You’re welcome!” acknowledges a gift given and taken in, a word or gesture valued, not diminished by a throwaway response. Receiving or giving a grateful word takes a certain bigness of heart, a sense that together, the giver and the receiver of thanks have achieved a new moment in the human journey of connectedness. We are better for having had this encounter.
Often, the gospel we use for a Thanksgiving Day Eucharist is the story of Jesus and the 10 lepers. (Luke  17. 11 – 19) We tend to lump these lepers together into a faceless group, as if they came out of nowhere and were going nowhere.
But they were people with life stories, like you and me. Someone loved them. Maybe they had a spouse or children who missed them, who wondered what had brought this disaster down on them. Birthdays, weddings, deaths were missed. Maybe some were professionals whose work was forfeited because of their illness. They were women and men, young and old, from here and there. Jesus went to them. He stood in their outcast place with them and gave them new life. Nine ran off to resume that life. Maybe they didn’t even realize that Jesus had anything to do with their cleansing. But one did: a foreigner, a stranger, a Samaritan. When in his own moment of joy, the healed man recognized the source of his cure and thanked Jesus. The Scripture doesn’t say so, but I suspect that Jesus knew his own moment of joy.
Gratitude begets joy, and joy is contagious.
So here are the ingredients we’ve already mentioned that we can use to deepen gratitude in our gifted lives:                                  be present to/conscious of the one being thanked
                                           recognize our connectedness with one another
                                           say the words “thank you”
                                           experience joy and pass it on
This Thanksgiving, “pray not only because you need something, but because you have a lot to be grateful for” (Pope Francis). For all the gifts of life, say thank you to God, not “no problem.” No matter our feelings about the recent elections, Theodore Roosevelt encourages us: “No people on earth have more cause to be grateful than ours, and this is said reverently, in no spirit of boastfulness in our own strength, but with gratitude to the Giver of good who has blessed us.”
And I thank God for you who stop by this blog to consider and sometimes savor these weekly thoughts.
~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, November 14, 2016

Post-Election Reconciliation

Dear Friends,

This week, we are awash in words, and we need to be. We are a people who are trying to understand the meaning of this presidential election – deeply divided by profound sadness, fear, and even abhorrence on one side, and on the other, elated satisfaction embedded in the hearts and minds of people who believed they were finally heard. Each of us comes to these contrasting emotions side from where we stand. That’s the truth of it: we hear, we perceive, we choose from where we stand.

Listening to a variety of voices over the past few days, I heard some journalists admit they didn’t do their homework – they didn’t adequately go out to where people lived and hear their voices raised in frustration and anger. I heard some people say they were caught off guard: Who would want anyone but Hillary Clinton, with her courage, experience and convictions? But more Americans than not tipped the scales of the electoral process toward now President-elect Donald Trump.

I heard Khzir Khan interviewed early on Election Day. The anchor wanted to know if Mr. Khan had acquired a taste for politics. Would he pursue a political career? “No,” Khzir Kahn said. “But I do have 44 commitments with various groups across the country until next April: opportunities to talk about reconciliation.”

Reconciliation is not easy to come by. We must first seek out the other – the one from whom we are alienated and talk through the miseries that have divided us. That’s the first major hurdle, isn’t it? We don’t know how to talk with each other. To say where we stand and why. Too often, people who embark on these conversations only want to make their own points and not take in the meaning the other is trying to convey. That’s what made reconciliation so difficult between the prodigal son and the older brother. The older brother, who had had everything up to that point, didn’t want his brother to have everything. Reconciliation requires standing on a common ground and hope for a common good. Both sides must engage in the effort – but this week may be too soon. Grief and its opposite, the elation of victory, need to run their course.

Those of us who share the Christian tradition know, at least as a practice and tenet of faith, that we are all called to help shape the kindom (reign/kingdom) of God…a kindom of justice, peace, respect, love – a kindom where the Beatitudes are embraced as a daily way of life and the works of justice and mercy (Matthew 25) are a daily task for all of us, no matter our political affiliation. We know these, as well as we know that in our national founding documents, all people are created equal. Without doubt on my part, this election calls us to be conscious of these life-shaping foundations and to activate them with renewed vitality over these next four years.

In a reflection on the these times, my friend Bill Johnson, former Mayor of Rochester, ended with a strong reminder from the poet Maya Angelou: “You may not be able to control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” Will we individually and collectively make that choice?

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, November 7, 2016

Uniting as One Nation Under God

Dear Friends,
This is a week of coming face to face with life-altering choices for Americans: choosing leaders and recalling how many Americans choose to be sent into harm’s way for the sake of the common good.
I speak, of course of Election Day (Tuesday), and Veterans’ Day (Friday).
It’s well-known that we have been in a cycle of paralysis, which thwarts our desire to be all we can be as a people – our desire that everyone benefit from life in these United States. 
As we prepare to choose, political candidates at every level have tried to convince us of their positions. Are there other voices to listen to? I know one in particular that we heard speaking to a joint session of Congress last year: Pope Francis. Here are some excerpts from his speech on September 24, 2015, to mull over as we attempt to hear God’s voice in concert with our choices as we prepare to vote. I invite us to read over these thoughts (even out loud), pray over them and carry them in our minds and hearts to our polling places as a reminder of the good we have been as a nation and the good we are called to.
                “Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this, you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you…you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face…
                All of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried by the disturbing social and political situation of our world today…We know that to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you as a people reject…
                I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of ‘dreams.’ Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people…
                A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to dream of full rights for all their sisters and brothers, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton….
                {Here is} some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream. “
This week, I wish you the courage to vote with an openness to all our brothers and sisters who join together in a mutual desire for life in abundance. May you honor all who have served our nation’s vision of a world at peace. May the end of the week find us more deeply united as one nation under God.
~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, October 31, 2016

Honoring Life Stories

Dear Friends,
As our calendar turns this week through Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, we are at least vaguely aware that this is the time to remember loved ones as well as strangers who have gone before us.
To highlight these days and these memories, I’m going to do two things this week, and I invite you to do so as well.
First, I’m going to take a walk in a cemetery – a slow, thoughtful walk, pausing to look at individual tombstones, and groups of tombstones that point to relationships among people deliberately buried together. A walk like this might take us to historic Mount Hope Cemetery, or to an old, apparently forgotten cemetery in the country or to a village cemetery. My immediate family members are buried in Lackawanna and Batavia. I doubt if I’ll get to either place this week, but walking through another cemetery will help me remember that my loved ones lived their lives as fully as possible, and now their remains are in a treasured place, like the one I’m walking through.
Ghost walks are popular around Halloween. This is not intended to be a ghost walk, but a tender walk of remembering people who lived as we do, with hopes and desires, frustrations and delights, sadness and joy.  If you see a small pile of stones at a particular gravesite, take a closer look. What this pile of stones may represent is a practice borrowed from our Jewish brothers and sisters, for whom a stone placed at a gravesite indicates honor, connectedness, reverence for the ideals that moved that person in life.
The second “to do” of the week is to go to one or both lectures offered this week at Nazareth College as part of the Annual Shannon Lecture Series. This week, the speaker is Robert Ellsberg, the publisher of Orbis Books, internationally recognized for his extensive publications about the saints of our world. He includes in his books, figures as widely separated in time and religious orientation as Sadhu Sundar Singh (Indian Mystic), Rahab (Faithful Prostitute of the Book of Joshua), Agneta Chang (Maryknoll Sister and Martyr),  St. Boniface (Missionary and Martyr) and Johann Sebastian Bach (Composer) to mention a few. Mr. Ellsberg will start with A Revolution of the Heart: From Dorothy Day to Pope Francis (Thursday, November 3 at 7 pm at the Schutts Center at Nazareth College) and will continue the next day with Saints and Prophets: Models for Today (Friday, November 4 at 1:30 pm in the Golisano Center.) To fill our minds with other people’s stories of faith is to give ourselves a new way of looking at our own lives. As Pope Francis told our Congress last September, “saints offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality.”
Both of these “to do’s”  offer ways of looking outward at a time of year when the temptation is to hunker down and give up venturing “out there” – where people and situations which can expand our hearts, minds and souls.
~ Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Food in Our Life

Dear Friends,
Is not life more than food? Jesus asks this in the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 6.25)
Of course it is, we would say, but we also have to admit that food is a great human preoccupation and a primary source of comfort as well as nourishment. Our mother’s milk was, after all, the first of our human comforts. Hot soup during this recent spate of rainy weather has also been a comfort.
Food is intimately bound up with our biblical origins and history as a people of faith
  • Adam and Eve got into trouble because they chose to eat food that was forbidden.
  • When the Israelites were in the desert, God gave them daily substantial food called manna.
  • The remembered stories of and about Jesus often brought people together around food – parties, and dinners and ritual meals and pick up meals on the road. Then of course, there is the multiplication of the loaves and fishes – a story told by each of the evangelists, so profound was this experience for the followers of Jesus.
Jesus knew how important it was to share food and drink with people and He went beyond that to link food with His relationship with His Father. “I have food to eat that you do not know about,” Jesus told his followers (John 4.32) “My food is to do the will of the One who sent me (John 4.34).” “Do not work for food that cannot last, but work for food that endures to eternal life – the kind of food I was offering you (John 6.27). In the mystical transformation of food’s nurture of mind and body, Christ comes in Eucharist as bread and wine to nourish our daily lives.
Halloween marks the beginning of a long holiday season, where the centerpiece of our hospitality will be food that is shared. Looking ahead, how about making space in our lifestyles to find and savor spiritual food in times that could easily distract us from God’s presence and care? How about reexamining our own use of food as a humanizing agent for ourselves and our communities?
Generations of health experts have warned us that we are what we eat. The irrepressible Zorba the Greek in Nikos Kazantzakis’s great novel points us to the truth of being what we eat. “Tell me what you do with the food you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are. Some turn their food into fat and manure, some into work and good humor, and some, I’m told, into God.”
Like Jesus, we, too, have food to eat which we do not know.
Food for bodily and spiritual strength.
Food for vision.
Food for re-valuing food, and sharing it at life’s many tables.
~ Sister Joan Sobala