Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Perfect Family

Dear Friends,

Sometimes the topic for the coming week’s blog arises from experiencing a whole series of incidents that make the same point. The week before Christmas, a friend told me her nephew was coming into town. The 30 year old middle son of her brother, this son had struck out on his own, and unlike his brothers, did not go to college, but happily took up farming in a rural region of the mid-west. *One of the many Christmas dramas on the Hallmark network included the successful outcome of a struggle of a daughter to be her own person and not accept her mother’s career choice for her.* In Elizabeth George’s novel, Careless in Red, the wise man, Jago, says to Madelyn’s grandfather  "The devil of young people is they got to be allowed to take their own decisions, mate… It’s part of their way to being grown. They take a decision, they make a mistake, and if no one rushes like a fire brigade to save them from the outcome, they  learn from the whole experience. ’Tisn’t  the job of the dad – or the granddad or the mum or the gran – to keep them from learning what they got to learn, mate. What they got to do is to help work out the end of the story.” *And how about the car commercial which pictures the family driving away in their new SUV.  Husband and wife are smiling broadly at each other. Two kids are in the back seat, well dressed and well behaved. The message seems to be: Buy this car and your family life will be perfect. You can add your own stories about choices that family members make for or despite one another.

Family life isn’t perfect or even easy – not for us in our day, not for the Holy Family. In their family, there was an unplanned, unexpected pregnancy.  Can you imagine the discussions that went on between Mary and Joseph? Later, when Jesus was twelve, he stayed behind in Jerusalem, setting off a frantic search for him – hoping he was safe.

The examples I began with, the stories of Mary, Joseph and Jesus tell us that in every age and place, in every culture, the process of growth toward adulthood is always a struggle for everyone involved.
Pope Francis, when he was in the United States in 2015, gave a about Family Life. “The perfect family doesn’t exist—nor is there a perfect husband or a perfect wife or a perfect mother-in-law. A family is made up of just us sinners. A healthy family requires the frequent use of three phrases: “May I please…”, “Thank You…”, “I’m sorry…”

If any of us – families or individuals – are looking for important New Year’s resolutions, this might be a good and holy place to start:

                Pay attention.  Listen. Encourage your children’s talents. Don’t override their dreams.
                Say “May I please…”, “Thanks You” , “I’m sorry…” 

                Whether you are the parent, grandparent or offspring:
                “May I please…”, “Thank You…”, “ I’m sorry…”

                                      Happy New Year to you and all you love.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Christmas is The Feast of Risk-Taking

Dear Friends,

Christmas is the feast of risk-taking. We can see it, touch it, feel it, hear it.

God the Father took a risk when he sent the angel Gabriel to ask Mary for her consent to become the Mother of his Son. Mary took a risk when she said yes to God’s remarkable request. She accepted that call with her yes. The yes of Mary was the first word of the church.

Mary kept silent about what she was called to until Joseph also knew. Keeping silence is risky. Misunderstanding could follow upon silence.

Joseph received his message in a dream. He risked believing when it would have been easier to not to do so. He risked believing he was an important player, something greater than he could imagine.

Jesus, the newborn babe risked becoming totally human as well as divine. He entered a world of believers and unbelievers and disbelievers, so that all might live.

The shepherds risked coming down into town from the hills where they were at home. Going where we don’t feel comfortable is risky.

Later, the Magi would arrive. They were both sure and unsure about what they sought. It is risky to go forward on life’s journey when we are unsure of what we seek and where we go.

Going to Herod, they hoped to diminish risk, but their encounter with Herod brought death to little boys who didn’t know they were at risk. Sometimes, other people suffer when we take risks.

Following the newborn Infant God is risky for everyone.

Following him leads to the cross. Jesus risked everything on the cross. That risk was already present at his birth.

But more.

Following Jesus, the Babe of Bethlehem brings us to the resurrection and life to the full. In a world where refugees risk all by fleeing from death in their own homelands, the Babe is present. Where firefighters and first responders risk their own lives to save others, the Babe is present. Where families put down the differences that divide them in a moment of Christmas peace, the Babe is present.

Where Christians are persecuted and die for their faith, the Babe is present.

This Christmas, let us each believe in a deeper way  that  Jesus, Emmanuel, God with Us, the Word made Flesh, the Prince of Peace, the Light of the World, the Good Shepherd, the Risen One is close as we risk all for the sake of life. It’s a splendid way to end one year and anticipate another.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, December 14, 2018

Being Spiritually Attentive

Dear Friends, 

Being spiritually alert and attentive to the richness of the Advent and Christmas seasons means that we are alert to the promises of God. Here are a few themes for us to savor as we try to stay alert:

From the earliest days of the Old Testament and from our own earliest days, angels have been our protectors, guides, companions and the carriers of messages from our God to us. “See, I am sending my angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared for you. Be attentive and hear his voice.” (Ex.23. 20–21)   When have you experienced angels?

One of the simplest ways of grasping the meaning of the virgin birth is to say that Jesus‘ birth was extraordinary. .He came as we would not expect. We can live more engagingly with the mystery of Christ’s birth if we allow Jesus come to us in unexpected ways.

Implicit in the messages the angels brought Mary and Joseph separately was the same subtext: Stop worrying. Details will follow. Mary and Joseph did not see the whole picture immediately. Why do we think we should?

In the committed love of people for one another, God is always present (recognized or not). Think Mary and Joseph, Zachary and Elizabeth before their respective annunciations. Do you see God active and loving in the committed relationships you have with others, or does God go unrecognized?

God who travels with us is also at the end of the journey in the people who await us. Think about God in the innkeeper in Bethlehem, who welcomed Mary and Joseph giving them whatever he could. Where has God met you (or the people you love) at the end of the journey?
In the events of life, the poor have a place alongside the wealthy and wise. Whether we are magi or shepherds, we are welcomed into the presence of the Child. It’s not the little or the much we bring that matters. Our very presence, and acceptance of the presence of those who stand alongside us, is all.

The enemies of God will threaten us but will not succeed. Or to put it another way, our lives of faith threaten the enemies of God. Herod, in Matthew’s Gospel, had limited power but did not want anyone else to have it. He brought no compassion or mercy, no sense of wonder to the people. But the Magi, and the Holy Family escaped him. When and how have we escaped from the enemies of God?  

The future belongs to those who hope and who pass on a reason to hope. Hope means to accept unseen the word of promise for life that is brought by the Unexpected Other. Despair and dejection can block our perception of the future. How and when have you found hope this year?

Be echoes of God. Be like God this week: rejoice over someone else just as God rejoices.  “God will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in his love.” (Zeph.3.17) This week, audibly rejoice over others.  “How glad I am to have you as a friend, a son, a daughter, a sister, a brother, a spouse.”

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, December 6, 2018

What’s your take on John the Baptist?

Dear Friends,

It would be very easy to slip through Advent without so much as a nod to John the Baptist. The other characters of the Advent season seem so much more appealing: generous Mary, tender Joseph, the searching shepherds and kings, the harried innkeeper. Isaiah and Jeremiah with their prophecies full of hope, glory, and enthusiasm. John, on the other hand, seems dour, reproachful, and distant. But he is the cousin of Jesus, loved by Jesus and ready to clear the way so that the Word may become the true inspiration of the people. What’s your take on John the Baptist? Do you like him? Value his way of pointing others to God?

John the Baptist is not a down-home sort of man. He isn’t easy to be with, nor is he easy to listen to. That isn’t to say that there is no tenderness in John. Rather, while Jesus radiates compassion and love, John has other gifts and ways to prepare others to turn toward God. His is the work of reconciliation not reproach, of walking away from self-centeredness toward the embrace of God.

Before we can embrace the eternal newness of God, we must recognize our tendency to self-serving ways. We need to recognize sinfulness in ourselves, and need to be drawn to seeking forgiveness and desiring reconciliation. These are powerful emotions and we need help in coming to grips with them. That is what John the Baptist provided before Jesus came into full view.

Look at it this way: Someone was John the Baptist for you, the hard teacher who led you to God in new and inspired ways.  And you have been John the Baptist for others. We know this because at some time, in some way, we have stood or lived on the margins. We have been adrift. When we moved away from feeling no need for grace, when grace moved faith from our heads to our hearts, from intellectual realization to a relationship with Christ, it is because someone accompanied us – a stranger or a loved one in the spirit of John the Baptist. Our own John the Baptist has told us to prepare for the coming of Jesus at Christmas by getting rid of the bumps and holes in our life to make a straight path for our God. 

At Christmas, even as we celebrate the coming of Jesus, we also celebrate our own homecoming to the Lord, to our own true self and to the Lord’s House.

John the Baptist, who seems so stern and serious, helps this to happen and brings us a certain joy. That joy, almost a giddiness, is the experience of the Israelites released from their captivity in Babylon ‘When the Lord brought back the captives of Zion, we were like people dreaming Then our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with rejoicing.”

Advent is intended to have a joy all of its own - the joy of anticipation, the joy of going along together, the joy of coming in from the margins and embracing Jesus, life, others, the Church which offers us Jesus in the first place. Don’t leave John the Baptist out of the mix!

-Sister Joan Sobala

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Nourish your Soul for this Advent Journey

Dear Friends,

Advent approaches. Awaken. You are surrounded by angels and alleluias. Accept the coming of God with anticipation. Be attentive to the prophecies of Isaiah and John the Baptist. The new Ark of the Covenant, whom we call Mary, already bears the seed of God’s life and our future. Let us arouse Faith, Hope and Charity in ourselves for the sake of others.

Drop down dew, O heavens. The Desired of the Nations comes.  The Daystar rises. The desert and the parched land will exult (Is.35.1) Let us disturb our too easily contented lives and determine what need to be done to welcome the Holy Child into our hearts and homes. Let the anticipation of Christ’s coming reach into us deep down and bubble over. Let us decorate our lives, our words, our gestures and homes and places of study and work with splashes of color that bring attention to God’s great delight in the children of earth.

View the world from God’s vantage point. Venture out into the darkness. Volunteer to go to people who know darkness as the only way to live. Visualize the biblical figures who stand before and after and around the Holy Family. Value the depth of these days of waiting.

Extend a hand to those who want to come with you into Advent waiting. Evoke God’s name on their behalf.  Empathize with those who do not understand this waiting. Entreat those who are coming along too slowly and invite them to pick up their pace. Emit sounds of joy that make a happy sound in other people’s lives. Expect Emmanuel. Know that the Empowering One will make all things new.

Nourish your soul for this Advent journey with songs and psalms and tasty reading from Scripture and writers of faith. God is near. Nearby, too, are the holy ones who have been faithful or have returned to faithfulness. Nuance the value of what you hear, take in, absorb, believe. The newness of God is near!

Trust. The power to trust is given. Touch the lives of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all who stand around them with tenderness. Treat all people you meet with the realization that God in Jesus is in them. Say over and over again: “Truly my hope is in you.” Teach others to say that too. Treasure  this time without measure. Tune in, be attuned, be tuned. From the stump of Jesse, the Tree of Life is growing. The timelessness of God’s presence is renewed.

                                    The season of the seed, the secret, the star and the silence is upon us.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

What is Truth?

Dear Friends,

Once there was an emperor who looked at himself in the mirror and realized that he was getting old.   “I will have to find for myself a successor,” he thought. So, he called together the children of his land, and gave them each a pot filled with soil and one seed. “Come back next year at this time,” he instructed them, “and show me what you have grown.” The following year, as the date approached, little Ling’s pot had nothing to show for his efforts. Nothing. Ling didn’t want to go back to face the emperor, but his mother reminded him that he had done his best. On the appointed day, children came carrying pots with all sorts of colors and blossoms of every size. The emperor came in. His eyes took in every festive pot until he found Ling holding his pot without any visible growth. The emperor came over to him, put his arms around Ling and said to the assembly: “I gave you each a boiled seed to plant, knowing full well it could not grow. Ling was the only honest one among you. Because of his honesty, he will be the next emperor.” 

The followers of Jesus are like Ling. We bear the mark of truth in our lives. In this, we are like Jesus, who valued truth immeasurably.  “Who do you say I am?” His own personal answer to that question was, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” At another time, Jesus wanted his followers to know with certainty “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 

And when confronted with Pilate during his Passion, Jesus refused to let Pilate give him a title. Jesus needed no titles. He already knew who he was. In fact, Pilate missed the truth of who Jesus was, because he, Pilate himself, did not live by the truth. Living the truth gets us into trouble with those who prefer lies. Yet, if we allow him entry, Christ’s love and embrace are greater than any truth we have to face.

It’s one thing to lie to others. It’s more serious to lie to ourselves. When we lie to ourselves, we ignore the real problems in our families, among our friends. It hurts when we don’t live the truth or tell the truth to someone we say we love. It can make our body ache with anxiety.   Living the lie can not only hurt us, it can eventually destroy us.

People know when things are muddled. They can’t be fooled. The most important day of our life may be when we tell the truth and live with it.

Jesus before Pilate today, on this great feast of Christ the King, asks us the same question He asked Pilate: What is truth? 

What is Jesus’ truth? What is our own truth as disciples of the Lord? Good questions for ourselves and for our Church as we end one liturgical year and begin other next week. Let’s let this be a week of truth-telling and truth-being.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Our Attitude of Gratitude

Dear Friends, 

Even as we thank God for family, friends and the blessings of everyday life, let’s extend the boundaries of the things we think about as Thanksgiving approaches. Let’s enlarge our attitude of gratitude.

Here are two writers for whom gratitude has evolved in insightful ways.

Writing in the Sunday Times of London in 1996, a British transplant to America named Andrew Sullivan reflected on Thanksgiving during the 15 years he had already been in the United States. He said, “I’m thankful for the American talent for contradiction. The country that sustained slavery for longer than any civilized country is also the country that has perhaps struggled more honestly for the notion of racial equality. The country that has a genuine public ethic of classlessness also has the most extreme economic inequality in the world. The country that is obsessed with pressing the edge of modernity also has the oldest intact constitution in the world. The country that still contains a powerful religious right has also pushed for the equality of the homosexual community. A country that cannot officially celebrate Christmas is also one of the most deeply religious nations on the planet. Americans have learned how to reconcile the necessary contradictions not simply because their country is physically big enough to contain them, but because it is spiritually big enough to contain them. Americans have learnt how to reconcile the necessary contradictions of modern life with verve and a serenity few others can muster. It is a deeply reassuring achievement.” Some contradictions have been resolved here since Sullivan penned these words, but the call to gratitude remains.

The runner up for the annual  Foley Poetry contest sponsored by America magazine in 2017,Detroit  lawyer William O’Leary wrote in part he had gratitude
                For charity, joy, peace, patience
                That have always roamed the woods in front of me…
                                For believing in Adam and Eve
                                And Sister Mary John Francine who called them               
                                Saint Adam and Saint Eve
                                And all the believing that followed…
                For vows of marriage, vows of silence, vows
                Of chastity that bend the starlight to earth…
                                For holy names and graves…
                For the grace of growing old
                And thinking that it’s wisdom.
                                For that share of intimacies
                                I don’t share with words
                                But recollect with sadness and content.

May Thanksgiving be touched with wonder over realizations that continue to emerge in your very being.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Creating an Attitude of Generosity

Dear Friends,

Pepe and Rose were homeless people in Rochester in the 1980’s. Pepe was Sicilian, a burly, bushy-bearded man. Rose, his sweetheart, was fair and Irish, complete with a lilting accent.   Somehow, they found their way to Saint Mary’s Church, and once they saw that we were hospitable, they came every Sunday. After they had been there a year or two, the parish began raising funds for the renovation of our worship space. One Sunday, after the 8:30 Mass, Pepe pressed a dirty, crumpled up dollar bill into my hand. “This is for the renovation”, Pepe announced with Rose’s smiling approval. “ Oh, Pepe,” I countered, “couldn’t you use it for a meal this week?” But Pepe would have no part of it. I could see that thanks were the only proper response. On the day the church reopened, Pepe and Rose came up the aisle, their eyes drinking in every detail. I came upon them just as Pepe was saying to Rose, “Rose, will you look at what we did!”

 I never read the story of the widow feeding the prophet Elijah with her meager store of ingredients without thinking of Pepe and Rose.

Then there’s the gospel account of the woman whom Jesus sees walking slowly toward the temple treasury, the smallest Jewish coin in her hand. She was intent on making her contribution to the temple upkeep.

The unnamed woman was a widow, socially degraded by her widowhood. This woman was generous beyond her means, unlike the Scribes and Pharisees whose grasping ways Jesus rejected.
The generous sharing of what we have is no simple matter. How much of what we have should we share? With whom, why, when and how? There can also be in us a niggling sense that what we share may be wasted or misused to build political or religious empires rather than assuage the pain of the people.

Generosity is not only complex, it requires trust, and trust means “no assurances.” Take the widow of Zarephath  for instance. She had to trust that that using the last bit of her oil and flour for the prophet would not mean death for her and her son?

How does one create in oneself an attitude of generosity – a non-clutching, other-centered way of living?

Look around at what you see and what you hear? Some medical professionals put their own practices on hold and spend a month or two every year or so using their skills on behalf of the poor of the Caribbean.  Some people I know give away a top or slacks when they get another. Trevor, a 10 year old in Philadelphia saw on the news that the homeless in his city had no pillows or blankets. He convinced his Dad to take him to find someone to give his own pillow and blanket. Then he started asking his neighbors for their contributions. Before long, the whole city had caught onto the boy’s generosity.

These examples show how ingenious, how creative people can be when they take the call to generosity seriously. Their stories are mirrors through which we can look at our own lives.
For anyone who tries to hear the Word of God and keep it, the generosity of the widows in today’s readings are a reminder and a promise – a reminder that what we have is not ours to covet or hoard and a promise that, in some unspeakable way, the good we have and are will not run out in the sharing.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Beyond Our Own Desires

Dear Friends,

There are wishes and then there are desires. These two are not the same, are they? To wish for something may put us in the realm of imagination. “When you wish upon a star…” Whereas when we truly desire something, the goal is real, even if it is achieved only with great effort. We desire to learn, to escape, to belong. We desire a higher life, to press forward, to love. Michelangelo once prayed, “Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish.” Merton has another take, “Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.”

The stories of some people who interacted with Jesus are recounted today and over the last few Sundays.  On the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Oct.21) we heard how James and John came to Jesus. He asked them, “What do you want me to do for you?” They desired glory, power, status as the ones who sat next to Jesus in the kingdom. 

The following week, Bartimaeus, the blind man, was making himself a nuisance, trying to get Jesus’ attention. The crowd shushed him, but Bartimaeus would not be still. He cried out (sometimes that’s what we need to do). Jesus heard him and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Again the same question. But this time, the seeker does not wish for power. He desires sight. That’s all and that’s everything: the ability to see clearly, which allows a person to touch reality in an exceptional way.

Finally, this weekend, a scribe comes to Jesus, asking for certainty as to which is the first of all commandments. To love God and one’s neighbor with everything one is and has, the scribe and Jesus agree. They took each other’s measure, and neither was found wanting. They both desired to be one with God, each in his own way.

Three people come to Jesus with their desires. Do we do that? Do we come to Jesus with our desires, confident that Jesus will take us for who we are?  For Jesus, God-with-us, will do just that.

Beyond our own desires, we can ask: What does God desire? Greg Boyle S.J., the founder of Hometown Boys, and a sensitive writer, has his own answer to that question: “The desire of God’s heart is immeasurably larger than our imagination can conjure.” God desires us to come, live with, to cherish life with God. God wants us. God desires our companionship. Hard to believe, isn’t it? We make mistakes, bad choices. We are irritable and want things our way. We are weak, small in thinking and small in our actions on behalf of others. But the truth remains. God desires to be one with us. God wants us to accept each other’s races, religions and talents – to give up hating and killing those who are different from us. 

The Irish writer, John O’ Donohue prays that we may “have the courage to listen to the voice of desire that disturbs us when we have settled into something safe.”
As we desire, so shall we live.

~Sister Joan Sobala