Friday, April 20, 2018

Being God's People

Dear Friends,

Papa Francesco has done it again! At the beginning of his sixth year as our Pope, Francis has offered believers, and indeed the world, grist for spiritual growth.

This, the fifth of his documents, is an apostolic exhortation on holiness. Entitled Gaudete and Exultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), Pope Francis invites believers “to be holy by living our lives with love and by being witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves” (14).

In 135, Francis soars as he tells the reader about the essential connection between love of God and love of neighbor..."God is eternal newness and impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar to the fringes and beyond. He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where women and men, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek answers to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! God is fearless, always greater than our plans and schemes. Unafraid of the fringes, God himself becomes a fringe. So if we dare to go to the fringes, we will find Him there. Indeed, He is already there. Jesus is already there, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, in their wounded flesh, in their troubles and in their profound desolation. He is already there.”

At the same time, Francis doesn’t dismiss our need for prayer. “I do not believe in holiness without prayer, even though that prayer need not be lengthy or involve intense emotions” (147). But he continually goes back to the indispensable need to serve others. “We may think that we give glory to God only by our worship and prayer, or simply by following ethical norms. It is true that the primacy belongs to our relationship with God, but we cannot forget that the ultimate criterion on which our lives will be judged is what we have done for others” (104).               

In Chapter five, Francis writes about some virtues he believes to be important for us to practice in our lives if we are to be holy: “perseverance amid life’s ups and downs to endure hostility, betrayal and failings on the part of others,” (112), humility, boldness and apostolic courage.

He also tells the reader that community is necessary for holiness, contrary to our contemporary culture that advocates being apart. “Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations. We can resist leaving behind a familiar and easy way of doing things” (134).

“Growth in holiness,” Pope Francis continues, “is a journey in community, side by side with others” (141). “Each community is called to create a God-enlightened space in which to experience the hidden presence of the Risen Lord” (142).

“Do not be afraid of holiness,” Pope Francis says. “It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind for you when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self” (32).

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, April 13, 2018

Handing Ourselves Over

Dear Friends,

There’s a subtle little something that happens to us after Easter. What a relief! Another Lent has been negotiated in a more or less satisfactory way. Jesus is safely risen. Our catechumens and candidates are baptized and welcomed into the church. We can relax. Enjoy the blossoming springtime. Live out the rest of the year without concentrating on Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. Christ’s in his heaven, the poet says. All’s right with the world. What more is there to say?

The more is this: we are never done moving between the events of Holy Week and Christ’s risen presence. So during the weeks of the Easter Season, this blog will occasionally look at some aspect of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ last days and His Resurrection, and see that they have something revelatory to say to us in our times which are growing more secular and less convinced of Jesus’ present day reality.

In all four Gospel accounts of the Passion, it is said that Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified. Pilate had that power bestowed on him from Caesar. Jesus, in His own way, accepted the power of Pilate over Him. Jesus did not flee, or argue or try to change things. He allowed Himself to be handed over.

That made me think about the many ways we hand ourselves over to people and situations, or that people hand themselves over to us, for better or worse. Some hand themselves over to social media. At some level, we hand ourselves over to doctors, dentists, airline pilots, educators. We trust their skill and learnedness. We believe we will get to our destination, our goal by placing ourselves in their hands: lower blood pressure, strong, healthy teeth, skills acquired to make a living. I know a man who just had major reconstructive surgery done. For six years, he had handed himself over to a doctor who tried many procedures, but failed to address the root problem. Another doctor, the one who did the surgery, was disgusted with the doctor who let the pain go on for six years. Healing sometimes requires that we hand ourselves over to new guides.

There is a level of life deep within us that we are reluctant to hand over to anyone, and certainly not God – our privacy, our mistaken belief that we are the primary guides of our own lives and this has nothing to do with God. I think of Ignatius of Loyola – soldier and man of the world – who sustained a battle injury and had to convalesce in a place where the only books were about Jesus and the saints. These were enough to set him on the path to a future unlike any he had anticipated.

To what spiritual guides do we hand ourselves over? Cultic leaders who want to dominate us or guides who help us follow the unseen paths along which God guides us already?

And who has been handed over to us for better or worse? If we are parents, our children have been handed over to us to guide and inspire. If we are educators or faith leaders, we are called to help shape those we work with not to be like us but to be like Jesus.

Jesus, handing himself over to Pilate went to his death. But that was not the end, for Jesus was ultimately handed over to eternal life. That is our destiny, too.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Depth of Compassion

Dear Friends,

The Blessings of the Easter Season to you as we begin to explore the meaning of Christ’s Resurrection!

While there are many aspects to life with the Risen Lord, we begin today with God’s call for us to be compassionate toward all of our brothers and sisters. Compassion in our wounded world is not something we aspire to on our own. Compassion resides fully in God, our creator, who walks with people in their suffering, history and destiny. Jesus himself discloses to us the compassion of God.

Jesus teaches us the meaning of compassion in his teaching and healing actions. The story of the Good Samaritan is a touching parable of compassion for one’s unknown, unrelated neighbor. Good Sam, as some call him, was attracted and moved by the fragility, suffering and weakness of the fallen man. Good Sam was willing to undergo risk, loss and scorn in order to help the stranger. At its best, compassion, the deepest feelings of our heart, is the movement not to be dispassionate about the suffering of others, but to enter into it in solidarity and communion with them, and in the process, help to alleviate human suffering wherever we find it. Remember, too, the father of the prodigal son who saw his son returning from a distance, and “moved with compassion, ran to meet him" (Luke 15.20). And most especially, with compassion for the world, Jesus gave His very self on the cross.

There’s nothing trite, sentimental or romantic about being compassionate. As far back as with Confucius, all the major religions of the world have called adherents to do no evil but do good for others – the so called “Golden Rule.” For the sake of God and for the sake of others, compassion requires a willingness on our part to respond to social sin, and evil in its many forms.

Today, a world-wide movement called The Charter for Compassion invites people to shape their minds and hearts to be compassionate as a matter of daily living. Local retired Livingston County Judge and talented wood-worker Jerry Alonzo first heard of The Charter for Compassion at Chautauqua several years ago, as he listened to the British Theologian Karen Armstrong talk about it. Moved by the realization that people have stories of compassion to tell, that compassion is, for them, a way of life, Jerry put out a call for people in the Genesee Valley region to tell him about their practice of compassion or how they’ve experienced it. Jerry put together an art piece consisting of seven columns on which are inscribed the words of people, from children to adults, who had submitted their “take” on compassion.

That art piece on compassion is temporarily on display at our Motherhouse for the public to come, meditate, and wonder about the depth of compassion people speak of, often in the simplest of words (April 3 to April 24, 9 am to 4 pm, M-F).

Stop in, move around the stools in the display area, take time to sit, read and thank God for the people who contributed to the collection. See God’ own compassion in the words you read. Be absorbed in the silence. Finally, make your way to the small table where a notebook awaits your own reflection.

Then come to the Fresh Wind in Our Sails program on The Art of Compassion, Thursday, April 19, 7 to 8:30 pm, when Jerry will lead us through a sharing of what we know, believe,  and experience about compassion.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Story of the Risen One

Dear Friends,

The silence was deep, as it is just before dawn breaks night’s hold. Jesus, entombed since Friday night, slept the sleep of death. But not for long, because at some moment known only to Him and His Father, Jesus was alive. Whatever happened that made Jesus alive defies logic. Once again, it was only between Him and His Father. No brilliant insight of the learned could explain it. Jesus was not alive, as were Lazarus and the daughter of Jairus, after Jesus raised them from the dead. Jesus, the very Word Made Flesh was alive in a unique, irreversible way.  

“Death, that old snakeskin,” someone once wrote, “lies discarded at the garden’s gate.” Jesus discarded the snakeskin, broke the bonds of death for all people for all time. Surely, we would have to go through death, as He had. Just as surely as he was alive, we would be alive with Him, because of Him and through Him.

That morning, if the Gospel writers were to be believed, there was a lot of activity at the tomb: guards awakened to its emptiness, women came ready to anoint the dead body of Jesus, messengers sat in the tomb, giving their news to anyone who came there looking for Jesus. He is not here. He is alive!

Mary Magdalen, bereft, came in the cool of the morning to weep. But the appearance of the one she thought to be the gardener turned her tears into joy! It was Jesus, alive! True she did not recognize Him immediately – not until He spoke her name. If we are open, we recognize Jesus when He speaks our name.

The gospel accounts are silent about that first day, from the new dawning of the Risen Jesus, until evening. In the evening, Jesus would penetrate the locked door and stand in the awed presence of His disciples, save Thomas and Judas. Vulnerable Judas had already hurled himself into the darkness that Jesus would not have chosen for him. Thomas? Where was Thomas? Whatever it was that kept him away, he returned by the next Sunday. Had conviction stirred in him a little later than the others? We don’t know. He may be more like us than the others.

But where was Jesus between morning and evening of that first day? There’s an ancient tradition not substantiated in our official church writings that Jesus went first to His mother – to Mary, the one who bore Him, first held Him, nurtured Him, supported His ministry and most recently held his dead body. We can imagine the joy that tender encounter would have brought them both. But for the remainder of that first afternoon, Jesus was wherever He was. We don’t know. Let’s just let Him be in His divinely human newness.

Reunion, reconciliation, peace-sharing marked Jesus’ meeting that evening with His closest disciples. No recriminations or voiced disappointment on the part of Jesus. There was no room in Jesus’ heart for anything less than full reunion. Love. The depth of what it means to say that God loved the disciples no matter what.

There is so much we don’t know about that First Day of the Week. We do know this: the story of the Risen One has been interwoven with our story. Jesus’ Passion, Death and Resurrection brought us salvation as nothing else could. It is still working in us.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, March 23, 2018

Celebrating Holy Week

Dear Friends,

In one breath, we call today Palm Sunday – a time when we join in the contagious spirit of the spontaneous, disorganized crowd that welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem.

In another breath, we call today Passion Sunday, for we remember Jesus’ anguish. Abandoned by his friends, rejected by the people, he died the death of a criminal.

This day pulls us in two directions. We hope against reason that Jesus (and we for that matter) can win approval for His vision without suffering for it and we are touched deeply by his rejection.

Much of our life is pulled in two directions. It’s spent somewhere between triumph and tragedy. In order not to be swayed unduly by our own triumphs or overwhelmed by our own tragedies, we need to learn from Jesus this week. As Paul tells us, we need to make Jesus’ attitude our own (Philippians 2.5).

In Jesus, the crowd expected the long-awaited savior who would bring back Israel’s political and economic glory.

The people’s expectations were mirrored in those of the disciples. They had hoped that Jesus’ victory was imminent. The high expectations of the disciples and the crowd would plummet into despair in the next few days. Most would abandon Jesus, betray Him, be indifferent to Him.

And what of Jesus? What did he expect as He viewed the people from the colt’s back or later from the cross? He expected the faithfulness of God – His Abba. Though Jesus did not know what lay before Him from moment to moment, he was confident that God would see Him through and it was this expectation that would see Him through.

The disciples and the crowd expected triumph to come on the heels of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. It didn’t happen. They expected nothing more after Jesus’ death on the cross. But triumph surprisingly came – life breaking through death.

You and I as followers of the Risen Lord, see Holy Week washed in the light of Easter. Easter celebrates Jesus risen to new life. Easter means that life is to be transformed, never to be snuffed out.

And because we know this, believe this, our own expectations about life and death can be altered.

The stark contrast between the true and ardent Christian and those obsessed by what the world has to offer is highlighted this week. The world tells us to expect to have more, to have better, to be beautiful and successful. It tells us to hoard all we own and own all we can.

But Jesus tells us by His actions that, in the midst of suffering, contradiction and loneliness, we can expect the faithfulness of God and ultimately salvation, joy and the transformation of life. Let us attend to Him this week and make his attitude our own, the attitude that trusts God through the bleakest of times.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, March 16, 2018

God's Inspiring Love

Dear Friends,

I confess that you are never far from me. Last week, while on vacation, was no exception. I looked for inspiration for this blog in the stories people told about themselves, and how their stories intersected with the single greatest truth we live with during this Lenten season, namely that God’s love of us is freely given, precedes and embraces us before we even begin to love God. We heard this in last Sunday’s readings: “By grace you have been saved by faith and this is not from you; it is a gift of God”(Ephesians 4.9). And this week, that realization is given to us in Jeremiah 31.33, “I will be their God and they shall be my people.”

God loves us, inspires goodness and fidelity in us long before we feel the inspiration – even before we can name it or understand it. 

So here are my vacation stories that hold these truths.

A successful Rochester business man’s company outgrew its space. Victor, with its many innovative, small companies, looked like an attractive choice. But then, the man thought about his 35 workers, most of who lived in the city. It would be a hardship for them to get to Victor. The company ultimately moved to a place where the workers did not have to go far, even though the owner had to drive farther. Did this man allude to God’s love as the reason to move his plant closer to his workers? Probably not.

Another businessman from Georgia sold his company and was looking for the next investment, when someone told him about a company that was failing. The man investigated and told his wife that the company he visited was doing many things wrong. Soon, the 50 workers would be jobless. The man’s wife told him that this was the right time to buy it. He did and turned it around, increasing benefits for the workers and producing a reputable product. Did this man think of God as he went through the restoration of this company? Probably not.

After dinner one night, two other men were talking about their marriages. Each of them had been married over 50 years and one of them was a recent widower. They talked about the contributions each of them had made to their marriage, what their wives had meant to them over the years and how unaware they were that God’s grace through the sacrament of marriage really enfolded them. Was the God in their marriage part of their thinking? Probably not.

None of these people thought to name God’s love, given to them first, as the inspiration for their moral choices in business and their faithful, abiding love in marriage. Nonetheless, for each person in these life stories, the grace (a.k.a. God’s active love) was given unconditionally.

So too with us. As we live out these last weeks of Lent and move into Passiontide and Easter, let’s find in our own stories the way God’s love has inspired us to treat others with love and respect, valuing them and letting them know it. God loves us upfront, without hesitation, never making that love conditional on our own response. The proof of God’s love is in Jesus’ gift of himself.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, March 9, 2018

Embracing the Nighttime

Dear Friends,

Nighttime is precious – for dreams as well as for restorative sleep. Yet so many other things happen at night. Children experience things that go bump in the night. Adults find that some thoughts come to us with clarity in the night. We wake up at two o’clock and the problem is solved or the insight is given. Still others of us prowl around at night.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night (John 3). He needed the darkness, lest he be seen – lest he be wrong about Jesus. But in those profound conversations with Jesus, Nicodemus began to understand Jesus as the one sent by God as the way to eternal life. A whole new world opened up for Nicodemus – a world he would never have anticipated. Jesus was the unexpected one for Nicodemus.

Is He the unexpected one for us?

In a sense, we expect Jesus to be our savior. After more than 2000 years of Christian history, it’s in our hearts and souls. We expect Him in the Eucharist, in the Scriptures, in prayer.

It’s the unexpected Jesus who is harder to recognize, and there are impediments to recognizing Him.

Thomas Merton, the unconventional Trappist spiritual writer, offers us an intriguing insight as to why Jesus is hard to recognize in the world today. It’s especially appropriate to consider his words during Lent.

“The most pervasive form of contemporary violence that we experience is nothing less than overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form of violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to so many demands, to commit oneself to many projects, to want to help everyone in everything destroys our inner peace. The frenzy of life kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful…”  

Overwork neutralizes our ability to recognize our God, the unexpected one, who comes to us not in the security of traditional prayer, but out there –  in the midst of life’s experience. We can enter into this time of engaging Jesus only if we slow our pace and open ourselves to God’s tenderness. Let it seep into our minds and hearts.

Let’s model ourselves on Nicodemus who was invited through his nighttime conversation with Jesus to readjust his thinking about who the Messiah might be. Lent is the time for our own conversation with Jesus under the cover of night. How will this happen for any of us?

I don’t know, but you will recognize it when it happens. We don’t control God, but God awaits our openness in unexpected moments, in unforeseen encounters. Befriend the darkness where you can meet the Holy One.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, March 2, 2018

Our Passionate God

Dear Friends,

At various moments in the Old Testament, God gives us glimpses of who He is. Today, in the first reading from Exodus, God tells His chosen People: “I am a jealous God.” But Scripture scholars say the word “jealous” is an inaccurate translation. The more accurate word, the telling word is “passionate.” God burns with desire for the people He has created. What a remarkable, humbling thought!

The passionate God of all people and all times is most fully present in Jesus, as he is revealed in the Gospel. The disciples must have been horrified when they saw Jesus charging into the temple, tipping over the tables of the money-changers, driving out traders and scattering animals – a forceful and frightening scene. So unlike the Jesus they had come to know!

Just when we are comfortable ourselves, Jesus may well come crashing into our lives, challenging us to sweep out anything that hinders our relationship with God.

Jesus, the passionate God, doesn’t want us to be laid back about what really matters in life.

But what really matters? He told us: The wholehearted love of God and one another…no exceptions.

In these troublesome national and international times, we are tempted to close ranks – to love and protect those close to us, those who belong to us. We erroneously label some people enemies, and treat them as such. Turbulent times will take their course, but we must make our own course.

In the first reading today, we are given the foundation – the very least we can be and do as we make our course through life. Our passionate God says: live out the commandments.

The commandments are not 10 suggestions, not 10 burdens. They are not the ideal or the best we can do in life. They are the very least we can do to be on course to love our God and our neighbor wholeheartedly. It’s the work of a lifetime to try to hold people close and to treasure our beautiful world as God does.

A few years ago, I stood on a boardwalk over the sand dunes at Cape May, NJ, and watched a storm build up over the place where the Delaware River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The thunder crashed, lightening sliced the sky and the winds flung voracious waves against the shore.

A little way off, to my left, on one of those high wooden chairs that lifeguards use, sat a man holding his small daughter. They were huddled under a blue slicker, their faces rapt as they experienced the storm. The little girl, secure in her father’s arms, showed no fear, but only awe.

I hold that image in my heart these days, for it pictures nothing less than God, holding us close…all of us, refugees and immigrants, people trapped in the violence of Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa, Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. God, passionate about us, without exception. What will our response be?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Mountains of Life

Dear Friends,

The Olympics have given us a sense of what it means to go to the mountain. The downhill slalom and giant slalom races and the “pipes” have been held on steep, treacherous, unyielding courses, where only the most skilled and daring finish the course. Sometimes the wind on the mountains hampered events, sometimes the mountain itself defeated its would-be conquerors.

Important things, symbolic things happen to people on the mountains of life.

Abraham thought he went to the mountaintop to do the unthinkable – to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, his heir, the bearer of the future. Human sacrifice was practiced widely in the ancient world. People really thought that such practices were pleasing to God. Some commentators say that the story of Abraham and Isaac was meant to put an end to human sacrifice. That is the usual interpretation of this horrific story. We want to say “we’ve moved beyond that!” But have we? Don’t governments and people sacrifice one another for causes that are judged to be worthy?

On another mountaintop, centuries later, there was another son – a Beloved Son, who went up the mountain for some respite from work. There was an uneasiness in Peter, for earlier, in one breath, he acknowledged Jesus as the messiah and in the next breath, he had denied that Jesus would have to suffer and die. Peter and Jesus each had their own thoughts as they climbed the mountain.

There, Jesus was transformed. He was radiant, glorified, honored once more by His Father as He had been at the Jordan after His baptism by John. Peter, James and John were told to listen to this Beloved Son.

Lent calls us to listen to God, to obey and to offer, like Abraham and Jesus, all that we are and have. You and I could name the Isaacs of our lives that we have cherished and have had to give up. We haven’t necessarily recognized the ways in which God has returned them to us. We’ve also had transfiguring moments, when the Glory of God has shone in us or on others we have witnessed transfigured, and we have forgotten them. Now is the time to remember.

As we wonder what will happen to us as we go up the mountains of our own lives, let’s also remember His message to us: Take care of one another. Love one another. Be kind. Let your heart go out to the stranger as well as the friend. Sometimes, be heroic, if that’s what called for. Decide what is more important than life itself. Act on it.

Jesus tells us that we will not be overcome on the mountain.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, February 16, 2018

Facing Our Challengers

Dear Friends,

This is a season when we renew our willingness to accept God’s covenant with us. It is truly God’s covenant, not ours. Covenants are always made by the greater with the lesser. Covenants are not initiated by little people like us, but we are the hands-on beneficiaries of the covenant God makes with His people. On this first Sunday of Lent, we read about the covenant God made with Noah (Gen.9.8-15). The sign and seal of the covenant is the bow in the clouds – what we call the rainbow. If we are not otherwise engrossed, will the rainbow make us pause with delight and awe?

Next week, we’ll hear about God’s covenant with Abraham and the week after that, the covenant expressed in the Ten Commandments.

God’s covenant with us is forever. It takes courage to live out life with God this way, because living it out does not go unchallenged.

We meet the challenger of the covenant relationship with God in today’s Gospel. Satan. Satan is a symbol for anyone or anything, for any relationship or situation, for any interpretation of life or way of thinking that hinders us from becoming what Christ wants us to be: His brothers and sister – alive – active on behalf of goodness in the world.

The challenger pursues us, make no mistake about it.

What are the challengers in my life? Pride? Greed? A hard heart? Alcohol? Drugs? Power? Sex? The need to always be right?

What was the challenger in Nicholas Cruz’s life? Who was complicit is his life that allowed him to have an untreated, unrecognized mental illness? What drove him to kill 17 and wound others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14? He is not alone in his misery. Others are stirred in the same way to do irrevocable damage in people’s lives. People thus inflicted with soul-searing damage need advocates imbued with a covenant spirit to help them overcome their need to kill. 

Today’s gospel (Mark 1. 12-15) tells us that Jesus, who was tempted by Satan in the desert, was not overcome. He went on to teach, preach and heal, to give Himself for all for the forgiveness of sin and for life everlasting. Between Satan in the desert and His Resurrection, Jesus stayed close to His Father. He prayed and loved the One who sent him.

That’s the clue for us: this Lenten season, to stay close to the Father of Jesus, to Jesus Himself and to the Holy Spirit. We can face the challenger only through prayer and in this covenant relationship. With Christ, we will not be overcome. Trust God. Be alert to the challenges that come our way. Believe that Easter will come. Watch for the rainbow.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Beloved of God

Dear Friends,

Just look on the internet. There are any number of jokes, images both serious and funny, and stories about the coinciding of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day this year. You’ll want to know that the last time this happened was 1945 and the next time will be 2029. But what counts as valuable in this unusual combination of the heart and the holy smudge?

On Valentine’s Day this year, one important way to celebrate is to widen our embrace – to be God’s embrace of a people who get it wrong at times, who sin, won’t forgive, refuse to be reconciled with people which is the only way we can be reconciled with God. We are a worldwide community wounded by violence, hatred, lust, self-centeredness and greed. As a Valentine’s Day gift to the world this year, apologize when needed, begin over and be unselfish, be considerate and subdue an unruly temper, put both successes, failures and mistakes into a bigger perspective and love those whom we would rather despise or ignore.

But if Valentine’s Day can be celebrated with a worldwide embrace, it can also be a day to renew and deepen our commitments. Commitment is not a popular word in our society. We seem to prefer grazing, although commitment to our careers seems to be big. If you’ve continued in a relationship with certain people for years, continue to grow together, thank God and find new ways to deepen your bond. If you’ve given yourself to God through a religious commitment, make time to spend with God on Valentine’s Day in a special way.

As for Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s Day, think of this period of time in a new way. This is a time to become more deeply aware of the fact that each of us is loved by God. We are the beloved of God. The holy smudge on our foreheads is a sign of this love. It means to tell the world that we are loved so much that we are asked to participate in the love of Jesus for us, by welcoming his death and resurrection into our own lives. So, throughout Lent, we act our way into this way of thinking and being (I am the beloved of God) until it becomes so ingrained in us that it spills over into the rest of the year. Fasting, almsgiving and prayer, traditional Lenten practices take on a new meaning when thought of in the context of being the beloved of God. Will you remember you are the beloved of God when your body craves satisfaction, when you are powerless or enticed to put cultural toys first?

Another way of grasping the value of these conjoined events is to realize that I am not the only beloved of God. Because of Christ, and through Christ, the people we allow to enter our Valentine embrace also experience a life that is whole and sacred, even when they are unaware of it. Lent is not only about our own growth in God but how we can encourage in others who are also beloved of God the same wholeness we wish for ourselves.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Power of God and Life Over Cancer

Dear Friends,

Lately, I’ve heard quite a few people talking about cancer, so this blog offers some brief, not necessarily connected, thoughts about cancer and the spirituality it takes to live through it, whether we are the victims, or the caregivers/friends of the person suffering. The topic is one we would prefer to ignore in favor of more apparently engaging topics. But plow ahead! Share these thoughts with someone in the throes of cancer or mull them over yourself.

Let God be your consciously chosen partner. As people who have been brought up in a religious tradition or at least with an awareness of our own spirituality, we look to God for consolation, serenity or inspiration in illness. We sometimes feel God’s presence, but not always. Sometimes cancer is so absorbing that we forget to turn to God – God who is with us at every moment – in our anger that we have been brought low and that our body has betrayed us. Maybe we’re full of denial, unreasonably ready to shut out anyone and anything that might help us face our misery and pain.

Laugh when you can. As I walked in for my first round of chemo for ovarian cancer in 1991, I tried to hold on to thoughts from the Scriptures: “If God is for us, who can be against us (Romans 8.31)…You are precious in my eyes and I love you (Isaiah 43.1).” As the first drop of chemo descended from the hanging bag into the tube on its way to my body, I closed my eyes and waited for a spiritual image to come. This is what I heard in my mind: “Hi Ho! Hi Ho! It’s off to work we go!” The song of the seven dwarfs became my own spiritual song that day. I laughed out loud. Spirituality allows us to laugh even in the midst of pain.

What Cancer Cannot Do. About that same time, someone gave me a short piece by the Maryknoll Father Del Goodman. It lists all the aspects of life that are stronger than cancer. You may have others to add.

   Cancer is limited –
It cannot cripple love,
It cannot shatter hope,
It cannot corrode faith,
It cannot destroy peace,
It cannot kill friendship,
It cannot suppress memories,
It cannot silence courage,
It cannot invade the soul,
  It cannot steal eternal life,
It cannot conquer the Spirit.

In short, God’s love for each of us is greater than the cancer that threatens our life. Pass the word on.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, January 26, 2018

Hope vs. Optimism

Dear Friends,

The January 15 issue of TIME magazine bid readers to have an optimistic view of the world. Guest editor Bill Gates wrote that, using 1990 as a benchmark year, the world has experienced less childhood death, less poverty, more legal rights, greater political power for women, less sexual assault of women and a full 90% of children attending primary school. In so many ways, optimists point the way to the good things that happen that are passed over by news reports which focus on the dire and dreadful.

But real or perceived personal or societal bad news happens. How are we in the face of bad news? Does it destroy us? Bring us low? Are we optimistic? Do we have hope?

Both optimism and hope are human responses to life’s challenges, but they are not the same. The optimist holds that the way forward is possible when people do their best together. Hope goes through defeat and death to resurrection. Hope is rooted in God. Optimism is not.

Hope reaches for meaning and value in life. If we have the will to live and grow and become despite all the forces to the contrary, we live in hope, with God as our companion. Moreover, hope has to do with the big picture: life today, tomorrow and life everlasting. That’s how Saint Joseph thought as he contemplated his pregnant wife. “Before closed doors and his own empty hands, Joseph turned to hope: hope that finds a way when there is none” (Sr. M. Madeleva, csj). God is in the hopeful person. One cannot have hope without believing in God. And to hope for one self is to hope for all.

When I think of hope shattered and destroyed, I think of the widow that Jesus stops in the
Streets of Naim as she follows the casket of her dead son (Luke 7. 11-17). Her widowhood brought the pain of being marginalized in her society. The loss of an only son, her last surviving link to the past, would have deepened that misery because it changed her future. When Jesus raised her son from the dead, God had done the improbable and unexpected. His miracle was not just a wondrous happening. It was wondrous happening which restored hope to someone whose life had been shattered. God is in the hopeful person.

Like the Widow of Naim, you and I have mourned our dead. Not just our dead loved ones, but our lives that have appeared dead through loss, pain and upheaval. How do we react when one day we wake up feeling good again, when the laughter of children or the buzz of life is balm for our soul, when things begin to fall into place again and a tentative peace is budding again in our world? Have we recognized these revivified moments as God gift through the hope we bear? Do we embrace hope and go on?

Hope does not exist in the abstract. It is embodied in people and in communities, in the DACA cohort, the Rohinga who fled to Bangladesh and the Mapuche of Chile. Their lives have changed from the security of the routine and the commonplace to the strange and unfamiliar or even simply the new. Yet in the new and unfamiliar, if hope is in them, they find new direction, unity and new life through the God they know in some way.

The hopeful person knows God is with them, through thick and thin, no matter what the optimists or the pessimists say.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, January 19, 2018

Life Together

Dear Friends,

I keep thinking about the Haitians who are on the verge of being sent back to Haiti when their Temporary Protection Status expires later this month. At this very time, there are large numbers of Haitians waiting in Mexico to enter the United States, having fled Haiti through Brazil and then embarked on a long walk from Brazil though Central America. When asked about the closed doors of the United States toward him and other Haitians, one sturdy young Haitian, eating a much needed meal in Tijuana, said with a note of despair, “Life isn’t finished, but hope is.”

Last week, speaking to the world, Pope Francis urged nations to welcome migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons in the spirit of Matthew 25. But President Trump seems to be rejecting select ethnic and national groups from coming to the USA.

How do we make our way through of all of this? As Disciples of Christ, we are called not to abandon one another – our brothers and sisters, whoever they are. And furthermore, we are called not to be passively resigned to the demonic forces in life – not to be fatalistic – but to be committed to justice and reconciliation, compassion and love.

Christians believe that there will come a time when human conflict and misunderstanding will be resolved. We call that time of lasting peace and love “the reign of God” or “the kingdom of God.”

What will the reign of God look like? Feel like? Do we know it at all in our life as we live it or are we committing ourselves to something we will never see on earth?

Yes, we do know the Reign of God in our lifetime, but it will not blossom unless we accommodate our lives to building it. We can catch intimations of what the kingdom of God will be like by studying the sights and sounds of transformation in human interactions. For example, in the last scene from Ken Burns’ Civil War series, soldiers from the blue and gray who had fought in the Battle of Gettysburg gathered together there in the late 1920s. They were all old, feeble and wrinkled. As part of the reunion, they decided to do a reenactment. The Confederates attempted to charge up the hill, but their limps and hobbles didn’t get them far. From the top of the hill, their Union counterparts left their fortifications and made their way down hill. Men from both sides embraced one another, crying and comforting one another. Together they had decided to be part of the change the world needed. A glimpse of the Reign of God.

We become part of the change the world needs by reforming our ways of thinking, speaking, and acting. By standing with the soon-to-be deported and rejected migrants, by letting our congressional delegations know we want to be a country of welcome today as we were in the past. Our attitudes turn into votes, which turn into policy, which turns into what? Life together. An intimation of the Reign of God.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Every Day "Click"

Dear Friends,

Here’s a question to ask at a party when the conversation lags. Ready? “What is one of the most common sounds heard in this century?”

It’s “click.” The light bulb goes on. The radio alarm, the electric razor, the food processor. Click. The MRI machine, copy machine, DVD. Click. On-off. Click. So much of everyday life involves a click.

Yet there are things in life that do not click on and off, like steadfastness, caring and generosity.

Then, too, some things begin when we are unaware of them and move into our consciousness and emotions, for better or worse, there to be harbored or cultivated – like attitudes toward people whose color is different from ours or enhancing our daily living by a series of “must haves.”

Take relationships for example. Surely we can say that he/she and I clicked immediately when we met – but if the relationship is to grow after that, what’s needed? Work, that’s what.

The relationships of our lives – relationships with God or people, require staying power and work, and that work requires openness.

Jesus was open to the people he met along the way – even those who eventually showed themselves to be his opponents. He was open to their questions, their need for healing, their hesitant hearts. Some came and stayed. The American Presbyterian Clergywoman Rachel Strubas says of the leper whom Jesus cured that “he was rehumanized by Jesus’ touch.” Others came and sipped from the cup of life. Others poured out the water of life on the earth and walked away. But Jesus remained open, never withholding Himself from others, even on the cross.

How open we are? Do we really listen to what others are telling us or are we preparing our response instead of listening? Or do we grow weary of hearing the stories of the pain of others and tune them out? Do we take in what others offer by way of gift or suggestion or are we limited by our own tastes and desires? Do our minds and hearts have narrow borders that we prefer not to cross? Do we go out into the world and treasure its adventures or does fear of the unknown hold us back?

It’s a new year. Unexpected things may click in us. How open are we to them?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, January 5, 2018

Following the Word of God

Dear Friends,

We know the key figures in the Epiphany: the Holy Family, the wise men and Herod. Don’t leave out Herod, for he represents darkness in the story. Herod is the counterpoint to the others and helps us understand the difference between self-serving power and cooperation with God.

This Herod, one of several to bear that name in the Gospels, knew from the wise men and from his own priests and scholars the ancient prophecies about the long-awaited savior who would come to set God’s people free. Instead of seeing this as a moment of grace and redemption for his people, Herod found the Newborn to be a threat, fearing that the Holy One who had come would now unseat him. In his rage, Herod massacred the children under two years of age who lived in the area. Great sorrow was in the land, but Herod didn’t care.

Mary, Joseph and the wise men, on the other hand, had been attentive to the Word of God that came to them through messengers and dreams. They listened and they obeyed. They made a decisive response to the invitation of God. There was no law given for them to obey. Rather, it was what they heard in the depth of their being that moved them to do what was being asked of them. They heard and obeyed.

Obedience is not a popular term today. We Americans don’t like to be told “Do this. Don’t do that.” This is a caricature of obedience. We say we prefer dialogue, thank you, and then prefer to be left alone, each of us to our own opinion. After all, we argue, adult self-direction is best. But in this Epiphany account, we are given a new way to understand how compelling obedience really is. The wise men had their dream. So did Joseph. The messages they were given were unenforceable. No one made them act, but they all knew what they needed to do and they…did…it.

We are invited by the story to be obedient as Mary, Joseph and the wise men were, and Herod was not. Without benefit of a law, we know that, at times, we must do something…to act in some hitherto unexpected, life-giving way. No one else knows it. It’s unenforceable, but we know and we have a choice. Will we do it or not?

Christian history is full of women and men who stood firm and did not capitulate to the Herods of their day – not just martyrs, but ordinary people who in their own way stood up to destructive powers in obedience to a higher call.

This year, 2018, new Herods will arise and maybe some old ones will return – personal Herods who want to destroy individual lives or macro-Herods, whose selves are so huge that nothing else matters in the world.

When these things happen, stand firm. Listen to the dream. Go where it tells you. Do not tarry. Do not be afraid. Be Epiphany people.

~Sister Joan Sobala