Monday, December 21, 2015

Offering the Best We Can

Dear Friends,

Last week, we looked at Mary and Joseph, Zachary and Elizabeth and their profound places in the story of Christ’s coming to be with us as our brother and Lord. We found that they were also mirrors of ourselves and offer us valuable ways of approaching the Christmas season. Once more, we turn to biblical characters this way, as we consider the innkeeper, the shepherds and magi.

The innkeeper is an anonymous, busy, fleeting figure in the story of Jesus' birth. This innkeeper offered the Holy Family not the best, but the best he had. And God found the best he had enough.

We are innkeepers, too. We admit or keep people from the inn of our hearts, the inn of our homes. Do our kids, coming home from college find comfort in us? Do strangers find comfort? How about the sick for whom we care? Whom do we allow to stay in our homes? Are people nourished physically or spiritually in our inns? We also have inopportune times when our personal inn is full and someone comes knocking. Maybe we can’t offer our best – only the best we can. God will find this enough.

The shepherds and magi were definitely not A-types, bound to the morning. They paid attention to the night – to the star. The star did not discriminate against people. The magi were wealthy in some ways. The shepherds were poor in some ways. It didn’t matter. The shepherds were probably smelly and illiterate – local folk who saw the star in the sky and went straight to the manger. The magi learned about the star from their studies. Like so many worldly-wise, they went to the top first – to Herod. Surely he would know where the newborn king was. Only then did they bring their gifts to Jesus.

In each of us is a shepherd and a magus. We are called in the night to follow the star no matter how much or how little we know. We experience danger and disbelief when we tell others of following the star. The shepherds and magi never met. There are parts of us that don’t meet either.  Within ourselves are many worlds and they are all redeemed by Christ.

In fact the whole world is filled with shepherds and magi, each following a star (think refugees and migrants.) Some journeys seem endless or repetitive, like going around a rotary without being able to exit. One thing to keep in mind about our fellow-journeyers: the star does not discriminate against races, nations, classes and genders. See the shepherd and the magus in everyone.

Finally, there’ll be no new blog for the week of December 28, 2015, so here’s a thought we can apply to the turn into a new year. Written in 1905 by Minnie Haskins, I turn to it when facing an unchartered part of life:

 I said to a man who stood

at the gate of the year:


Give me a light that I may tread safely

into  the unknown.


And he replied,


Go out into the darkness and

put your hand into the hand of God.


That shall be to you better than light

 and safer than a known  way.


So I went forth and finding the Hand of God 

trod gladly into the night.

And God led me toward the hills

and the breaking of the day in the  lone east.


So heart be still;

God knows.

God’s will is best.


Abundant Christmas Grace and Every Blessing for 2016,


Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, December 14, 2015

New Birth in Our Lives

Dear Friends,

This week and next, I hope you’ll spend some time with people who are prominent or shadowy in the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth and early years. This week, we’ll look at one old married couple, Zachary and Elizabeth, and one young married couple, Mary and Joseph. Next week, we’ll spend time with the innkeeper, the shepherds and magi. Each of these would have had a different story were it not for each other, or were it not for Jesus.

All of these people met God in their ordinary lives. When we think of them deeply, we find ourselves revealed as well.

Zachary and Elizabeth represent the true and faithful of Israel, who had waited ceaselessly for the coming of God -- out there beyond their family and friends. As a priest, Zachary knew the Scriptures, and was welcomed into the innermost part of the temple. God’s messenger came to him in this ancient and familiar place and told him that newness would break through in him.

Zachary was disbelieving, responding in effect “I can’t. I’m too old. We are too old. You can’t be serious.” But God was serious and for his disbelief, Zachary was rendered speechless. Somehow he conveyed this staggering news to Elizabeth. She believed. They came together and together they waited – two old people whose youth was restored for the sake of a child and a message. Imagine their waiting, their intimacy, their awe. 

You and I give birth in our later years. God comes to us un-old and familiar places and says: “Newness will break in upon you.” In our older years, we do not give birth physically, but we give birth nonetheless – to an idea, an attitude, a movement.  Maybe we give birth to people who are already born by letting them go or by encouraging them to use their talents in other imaginative ways. As with Elizabeth, the new births of our lives need welcome and nurturing.

Mary and Joseph were tender youth who had ordinary and expectable hopes for their life together: marriage, a family, reaching old age together, seeing their children’s children. But all of this was not to be. God strained their faith and their relationship to the limit. Both said yes to God, but not without an interior struggle.

Mary and Joseph prepared or were prepared over a long time for the things that broke in on them with apparent suddenness. They could only see this in retrospect. That’s the case with us, too, Joseph attempted to reach a decision through analysis. In the end, he paid attention to the dream. How important it is for us to pay attention to our dreams.

What else has occurred to you about the mirror of these figures for your life and our world?
~Sister Joan Sobala

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Second Chances

Dear Friends,

In the first reading for the Second Sunday of Advent (C Cycle), Jeremiah’s secretary, Baruch, a poet and prophet in his own right, says to the city of Jerusalem, bereft of its people: “Up Jerusalem – stand on the heights. See your children are coming back to you!” (Baruch 5.5) The exiles,  held  captive in Babylon, had a second chance. The city had a second chance. And in a real way too, God had a second chance.

And then there is John the Baptist, offering his listeners an invitation to receive a baptism of repentance. And what are the key ingredients in John’s baptism if not reconciliation with God and others – a second chance.

There isn’t one of us who hasn’t had a second chance: the near miss on the highway, the birth that eases the pain of a previous miscarriage, the disease found out and dealt with, the chance to love again, telling someone something we dread revealing and finding love in their response.

Maybe we remember being told unequivocally by someone important to us that, since we didn’t “get it right” the first time, we would be denied the possibility of a second chance.

Or maybe we ourselves have denied others a second chance – closed the door to them, so to speak, and thrown away the key.

For some of us, a second chance doesn’t necessarily mean a change in direction. Maybe we’ve done something well, and a second chance is to do more. Or, maybe we’ve done something poorly and our second chance is to do it well. A new meaning for “Play it again, Sam!”

Later in the month, when we celebrate Christ born among us, all creation, all people  have  a second chance. Our world, our nation seems to be riddled with bullet wounds. We feel as though the very goodness of life is  curdling through the violence and hatred we experience. But God does not deny our communities a second chance. God holds out to the world the same potential for conversion and transformation that is offered individuals. If God is ready to give the world a second chance, then every strategy for justice and peace is worth the attempt and every labor for the relief of suffering is worth the effort.

All of this is why Pope Francis encourages us to live every day between December 8, 2015 and November 20, 2016 in the exercise of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Make tangible some use your time and talents so that others may have a second chance. Then, come Christmas and the unfolding year ahead, “our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with rejoicing.”(Psalm 126.2)

~Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, November 30, 2015

Advent ~ A Season of Dreams

Dear Friends,

The cover of  City, Rochester’s alternative newsweekly , last week featured an article about “The American Dream.” The young woman on the cover and the five people in whose stories are told inside are Muslims living in Rochester.  The Dream Act, stalled in Congress, would open up a process for immigrant youth who have grown up here to come out of the shadows and begin moving  toward  temporary legal status and eventual citizenship. Immigrants/refugees have dreams of belonging. So do we, cradle or naturalized Americans. So do people all over the world.

Dreams are an acknowledged, but distrusted part of life. We are apt to dismiss our nighttime dreams and daydreams as fantasy. Only children have visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads, we say. We set our dreams apart from our real world, where cold facts and adult responsibilities in resisting the unwanted or unexpected absorb all our time and energy.

Yet as December enfolds us, we begin  Advent, a season of dreams.

This year the first reading for the first Sunday of Advent is from Jeremiah who in poetic, prophetic language tells of Israel’s dream, how the very promise of a savior for Israel  is fulfilled. The passage from Jeremiah stands in stark contrast to Luke’s apocalyptic description in the Gospel, wherein the dream has become a nightmare of disaster, and Christ warns us to be on guard against the powers of darkness.

We move between the dream and the nightmare as individuals and as communities. We can limit the meaning of our dreams and nightmares to the psychological sphere. But our dreams are also a gift from God. God comes with a word of  warning , a word of encouragement or hope. Infusions of courage and conviction can come in our dreams.

In addition to the dream of Israel, during the Advent and Christmas seasons  we will hear how Joseph had several dreams, as did the Magi.  Those dreams gave them the guidance they needed. They relied on the truth that God would not lead them astray. God has dreams for us:  “I know the future I have in mind for you” God says in Jeremiah 29.11, “plans for peace and not disaster.”

We may not always be sure of our worth, but our personal dreams can make a difference in our fragile world. God-inspired dreams can and do re-shape our world as a people - the end of terror, food, water and health care for all. Work for all. An earth cared for. People’s gifts honored. As 2016 approaches, what will be our nation’s dream? Will we, as a people, be noble and generous? Will we want the best for the most? Will we add the convictions of our own dreams to build up the common good?

If we believe the dream of Jeremiah and the dream of Christ, then we won’t wait for others to act. We ourselves will act to make the dream a non-negotiable part  of our reality.

As the December landscape turns blue and grey, as the early darkening of the winter sky puts us in a  frame of mind to dream, the readings of Advent tell us: Watch carefully. Pray constantly. God is ready to meet us in the dream.

Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, November 23, 2015

Be Thankful for the Goodness of God

Dear Friends,
In the sweeping song of praise  that Christians call the Magnificat, Mary  proclaims for all the world to hear that “God has done great things for me.(Luke 1.49)”  As Thanksgiving approaches, I hope that each of us has awareness enough to say the same thing, with the same conviction. It’s true, God has done great things for us. But what? What great things? Listing them is a laudable thing to do, alone or with others on Thanksgiving Day. Here are  some ideas to prime the pump:
Surely we thank God for personal gifts: health and energy to meet the day, new ideas, meaningful memories, the blessings of family and friends. We thank God for whatever good people did for us in a year that might have been hard, and if we have had a good year, we thank God for that, too.
But there is more to Thanksgiving than acknowledging what we have received as gift personally and directly, for God’s action and gifts to the world are very much gifts to me as well.
As Mary is aware that God turns people’s expectations upside down, breaks the bonds that enslave them, free them to use their talents to better the life of all, so too do we need to be aware of the breadth of God’s gifts in this fragile world as touching us directly.
Helping hands in the turmoil of Paris last week, blood donated so that another person might live, ethical public servants ready to act, consensus-builders and peace negotiators, all who help us understand this rollercoaster ride called life, people who practice the art of healing  are God’s gift to you and me. Forgiveness given, justice insured, compassion offered and violence rejected across the world are God’s gift to you and me. Harvest of crops, harvests of unity and courage are God’s gifts to us.
But giving thanks for worldwide or personal gifts given to us is not enough. Consider focusing our attention instead on the giver of all the gifts we acknowledge. Theologian Karl Rahner,SJ,  told  an interviewer shortly before he died in 1984: “If God is interesting to me as a stopgap and the guarantor of my needs, then I am not speaking of the true God. The true God is the God who must be worshipped and loved for the sake of God.” 
This week is a perfect opportunity to turn to our generous, loving God to say: Thank you for being you. Thank you for loving the world and all its people despite the awful things some of us perpetrate. Thank you for being a God who holds us firmly but lightly and for encouraging us to act on our freedom. Thank you for loving us when we are grumpy and foul-mouthed, insecure or discouraged as well as when we are happy and satisfied with life. Thank you for letting us  recognize you in the love of another.
Soon, it will be on to family gatherings, meals, football, card games, long walks and talks together. May we carry into all of these traditional celebrations the whispered prayer: Thank you, God, for being you.
~Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, November 16, 2015

Courage in the Face of Paris Attacks

Dear Friends,

Friday the 13th was one of France’s worst days in recent memory. Lives of ordinary people were brutally snuffed out as chaos overtook the streets of Paris.  Once again, terrorists killed their fellow human beings in the name of a misguided ideal. The people who survived the hostility of that night could have only experienced numbness, shock, emptiness, helplessness. We live in calamitous times.

The misery of World War II caused  the French to wonder where  God was in the midst of all the senseless killing of the war, if they thought  of God at all. That led French philosophers to eventually pose the question “Is God Dead?” Was God dead? Is God dead, now?

The short answer, of course, is “No.” The long answer requires that the French and all of us tap the deepest understandings available to us when our lives collapse in some way, when we are confronted with  violence in our physical and political worlds, and experience  hostility among cultures and races.

People like us from other times and places who also came to the limits of their resources, teach us how to face our crises as individuals and as a people. The Book of Daniel speaks to the Jewish people fighting for their very survival. The Gospel of Mark comes out of another time of crisis, some 30 years after Christ’s Resurrection. Jerusalem was then under foreign domination and the familiar was being swept away.

Today, two thoughts gleaned from Daniel and Mark help us take courage as a world in the face of ISIS:
      In the throes of crisis, things are not always as they appear.
God is not dead. We are not abandoned. God has not lost control. In fact, God goes before us, surrounds us, offers us the freedom to shape life even as others misuse their freedom to destroy life. Disaster is immediately recognized for what it is. It is harder to frame that disaster in the hope God offers us.

·         It is only as a community that we come through the disasters of life.
Day-to-day, we may think of ourselves as independent, self-sustaining and capable
of working out the dimensions of our lives by ourselves. But we aren’t and we can’t be.
Watching the news from these days after the Paris massacres, we see people coming together, offering tokens of solidarity, not only on the streets of Paris but across the world.  Vigils intertwine people’s grief and the prayer that arises within them. Buildings, lighted with the French colors, illuminate the nighttime skies. These  symbols  are more than comforting.  They bespeak the determination of people to choose life.                                                                  

Disaster is not the mother of despair, unless we let it be so. Deep down, the French know this. We know this. Hope sustains us in the most arduous times. . As the French  poet, Charles Peguy, wrote in God Speaks. “If it weren’t for hope, all would be nothing more than a cemetery .”

~Sister Joan Sobala