Thursday, February 25, 2021

Torn Between Two Ways of Thinking

Dear Friends,

Among the characteristics people share is to be torn between two ways of thinking.

The Apostle Paul had it right: “I find myself doing the things I don’t want to do and not doing the things I want to do.” (Romans 7.15)

Peter and the early Christian community were pulled in two directions with regard to Gentile converts: to have them become Jewish before they became Christian…or not?

And Jesus, too, had his moments of being torn. Should he heal the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter or not? And remember how he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by, yet not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22.42)

You and I are torn between what we want and what we need. We want these COVID times to end, but we need to live through them and hopefully, come out whole, faithful to God and our loved ones, faithful to our country, our church.

Just as we are torn between what we want and what we need, we are torn between what we want now and what we committed ourselves to some time ago. This is a tough one. Each of us change and grow in life. Tastes change, experiences change us. It is difficult or tempting not to honor the commitments we made in our personal past. Hopefully, what we want and what we are committed to are the same, but it takes work to repeat our determination to live out these commitments.

And then there are people who are torn by a love/hate relationship with the Church. Before he died, a good friend said to me, “I haven’t left the Church. The Church has left me.” It hurt him to say it, but he believed it. He meant that, in his understanding, the church had not welcomed the new questions and insights about life that our times were experiencing. He no longer felt at home in the church which had not embraced him in his personal newness and the newness of these times.

My friend had not found a lasting home in the church in his last days, but he continued to seek and welcome truth. He continued to find a home in Christ, whom he recognized as the Way, the truth and the Life. Christ is greater than the Church, he said. Truth, he found, is somewhere between ambiguity and paradox.

Being torn between two ways of thinking is for some of us the only way we have to go forward.

Let’s not judge each other too harshly.

Instead, as we are torn between two ways of thinking in life, let’s turn to God, the Gentle Disturber of the satisfied and the Relentless Comforter of the distressed. “Hold me close,” let’s pray, “in your embrace of mercy and healing.”

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, February 19, 2021

Burning and Sifting

Dear Friends,

Someone in the church where
we celebrated Ash Wednesday
performed several indispensable steps to prepare for the ritual celebration of that day.

Someone burned piles of palm (saved from last year’s Palm Sunday service)
and sifted the residue.
Burn and sift.

Sometimes we find our hearts burning within us.
Sometimes anger or at least annoyance burns within us.
In fact, we all burn energy.
Burn and sift.

If you do not burn,
if I do not burn,
if we do not burn,
how will the darkness become light?

Burn and sift.
Sift together.
Sift with purpose,
continuity, and conviction.

Come to new realizations:
we cannot be who we are or become new
without burning and sifting.

Over the heads of the disciples (Mary, the Apostles and many more) on Pentecost,
the fire of the Holy Spirit burned,
calling each of them to proclaim and shape the emerging Body of Christ.
Burn and sift.
Respond and relate.
Come and become
holy and whole.

These are indispensables of
becoming one in Christ, of
sharing Life in Christ.

Lent urges us to prepare thoroughly
for Easter this year.
Easter, ever the same, always new,
glowing on the horizon
toward which we hurry.

Will you?
Will I?
Will we
awaken the stilled alleluia
on that Day of days?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, February 12, 2021

Welcoming the Leper in Ourselves and Others

Dear Friends,

Today’s Scriptural readings are about lepers. In Leviticus, the leper was quarantined not for the individual’s sake but that the purity of the community be preserved at all costs, even at the cost of excluding the leper from the love and support of family and friends. We can contrast the legalism of Leviticus with the human drama of the Gospel. Jesus, whose reputation must have been far reaching and great, inspired the unclean person to come to him and say:

                                            If you will to do so, you can make me clean.

The leper knew what he himself could do and what he was not permitted to do. Yet he stepped out of his required role to approach Jesus. Jesus, we read, was touched – not superficially – but in his innermost parts. Jesus touched this man whom society declared untouchable. He offered inclusion and healing in contrast to the community that offered only exclusion and condemnation.

The importance of what Jesus did becomes clear to us at the end of the story, where Jesus, in effect, trades places with the leper. Jesus, because of his compassion, was not able to show himself in any town He was ostracized – unwelcome as any leper would be.

As in the Book of Leviticus, people in our times also divide the world into the clean and unclean, the pure and the impure, the included and the excluded. That’s the stuff of the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6; the stuff of family break-ups; of class struggles. Today’s lepers are any and all people who experience discrimination, alienation, prejudice and rejection.

Is there a leper in you and in me? Is there a part of ourselves we consider untouchable, unclean? A part of me that the rest of me avoids? Is there something in my heart that I don’t want to look at – fear, shame, humiliation, an unwillingness to forgive myself, painful or scarring memories?

How easy it is to slump down in some private dump and feel the situation is hopeless. We can brood over our inadequacies and failings, allow ourselves to fall before the demons of discouragement or we can allow Jesus to get close enough to the leper in me to say:

                                            Of course, I want to heal you.

The significant thing about the leper in the Gospel is that he dared to hope. Because of that hope, he got up and did something in pursuit of the seemingly impossible.

Wednesday, we begin Lent, and each of us has a decision to make. Will it be a season ignored or half-attended to or will it be a time to face the leper in us as individuals, group or nation?

If we try, Lent can be for us a time of courage – a time to come before Jesus and say:

                                            If you will to do so, you can make me clean.

Let him be our guide this Lent as we try to welcome the leper and others in ourselves. Then Easter can be unlike any other we have known.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Remembering God is With Us

Dear Friends,

The first reading today is from the Book of Job. Job must have been composed in January or February when our world is bleak! His words find an echo in our own lives…depression, hopelessness, helplessness.

For a person who has lost a loved one or who has experienced the breakup of a relationship or who is out of work or has felt the pressure of being cooped up – anyone in these circumstances can understand Job when he says, “The long night drags on, I am filled with restlessness.”

Job has lost all. His lament was not so much that his possessions and children were gone, as that their passing made no sense. He had done nothing to warrant this suffering. He was a good person, yet he was suffering apparently unjustly and unfairly.

In the Gospel so much is said in so few words that it is tempting to think that Jesus has a simple answer for everything. He touches people, they are cured. Their problems are solved. Did Jesus have the instant cure for everything? No. Jesus was, at times, almost overwhelmed at the pain and suffering he saw.

The question won’t leave us alone. Why? Why pain and suffering, especially when it happens to good people like Job, who are innocent and faithful. It almost seems as though God is powerless. Why? Why? Maybe the closest we can come to an answer is a story I’ve heard several times.

There is a place where people still bring the sick to Jesus. I’ve never been there, perhaps you have. The people I’ve talked with tell a similar if not an identical story. I am speaking of Lourdes in France. It’s like a biblical scene. The sick, sometimes thousands of them, arrive by every possible means of conveyance, with hundreds of volunteers to care for them. Most of them do not receive a cure, but the answer to their prayers, and it is not a trivial one, is a healing in soul and spirit. They are renewed in faith, but the faith is not that they continue to expect physical healing. It is rather a conviction that God is with them. They do not bear the cross alone.

This is the good news, God is with us. It is a truth that is hard for us to take in, and perhaps even harder for us to explain.

For us, when all ties to the future seem to be cut off, when our pain and suffering seem overwhelming, it is in these moments when we are faced with Job’s choice: We can say, as Job’s wife suggested, “curse God and die” or we can come to God with open hands and heart. Tired, confused, angry as we may be, we can abandon hopelessness and bind ourselves to a hope that will sustain us even beyond death.

God promises in the Psalm today:

The Lord heals the brokenhearted. He binds up their wounds. He sustains the lowly.

We are talking about the One who stands against the dark forces of life that threaten to overcome us. We do not have to search for Him. He is among us. He is here. He holds us in his hands. He is our God.

To suffer is to write with our lives what we believe with our hearts. Our belief is that, though the setbacks in life are many, the victory, given to Jesus, will ultimately be ours.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, January 29, 2021

Seeing Beyond the Demonic


Dear Friends,

In the readings of the previous two weekends, we heard Scriptural stories of God calling people to follow, to listen, to act in new ways. This week, no more stories of call. This week, instead, we find the challenge to everyone called. The name of that challenge is the demon.

The historian Adolf Harnack once noted that “at the time of Jesus, the whole world was thought to be filled with demons. Every phase and form of life was ruled by these evil spirits.”

Archeologists have found evidence of how extensive belief in demons really was in the world of biblical times. Ancient cemeteries contained remains of human skulls which had been trepanned. Trepanning is a process by which a small hole was drilled through the human skull. Its only purpose was to provide an escape mechanism for the demons what were believed to live in human beings. The willingness of primitive surgeons to bore such holes, and the willingness of people to accept such surgery leads later generations to conclude that belief in demons was intensely real.

Our own society is divided about demons. Stephen King novels, films about the occult underscore our culture’s curious fascination with the demonic. On the other hand, some fundamentalist groups place a great deal of emphasis on exorcising demons in their newly converted members. People sometimes have their homes exorcised of demonic spirits. Still others would consider the subject a tribute to unenlightenment.

Yet, if the truth be known, you and I experience the demonic in life. Anything that seeks to harm, destroy or obsess us, to overwhelm our peace of mind, our families, our relationships are manifestations of the demonic. The forces that possess groups of people, incapacitate them, distort their humanity are demonic.

One day, early in his public ministry, Mark tells us that Jesus came face-to-face with a man taken captive by a force outside human control. The demon was clever. He made the man cry out “Jesus, You are the Holy One of God.” But Jesus would not accept this seemingly positive acclamation from the demon. While the words said one thing, the demon was bent on the destruction of the man and the destruction of Jesus.

“Be quiet,” Jesus said. “Come out of the man.” The demon convulsed the man violently before leaving, but the important thing is this: he left.

The only authority Jesus had came from his Father, his loving heart and welcoming ways. He offered people alternatives to the destructiveness they experienced. Life could be different.

Today, we have a share in the authority of Christ. It’s up to us to confront the readiness to do violence, the need to possess more and more, the need to give in to disordered appetites. We are called to see beyond the demonic that distort and destroy people who suffer the ravages of demonic power.

Today’s reading from Genesis reminds us that, surely in life, good will be in conflict with evil, but just ask surely, God is with us as we face the demonic. Demons have never overcome our God.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, January 22, 2021

Embracing Change

Dear Friends,

The Sunday readings that come along every week prompt us to look at our lives through the lens of Scripture and in ways that speak to our times. For Jonah, Peter and Andrew, James and John, things would be different as they followed the Lord’s call. In First Corinthians, today, Paul calls us not to be too sure of the way things are – to let go of positions, possessions, and relationships, because in God’s own time, things will be different.

As disciples of Christ, having had the national experiences of the last few weeks, have we considered that we too will be different going forward? With God ever present to us, what are we called to think, express, become and do today and tomorrow, here in this scarred and suffering land?

First of all, I think we are not called to abandon one another – our brothers and sisters, whoever they are. Likewise, we are called not to abandon the poor, the questioning, the helpless and hopeless, the stranger, the terrorist, the enemy. Nor are we called to be resigned to the demonic in life – not to be fatalistic – but to be committed to justice and reconciliation, compassion and love. Called for sure, but hard work nonetheless.

To activate this commitment, we need to embrace certain changes in our attitudes and actions. It might be a valuable thing to consider what movements of grace are already stirring in us. Change is not instantaneous but is already happening in us. In today’s Gospel, the responses of Andrew and Peter, James and John to Jesus were radical, but each of these men had grown in readiness to accept the Lord long before they were even conscious of the changes they would soon embrace. In this time of new leadership in Washington, racial tensions, economic plight and the ongoing pandemic, what readiness has been evolving in us to follow the Lord more deeply?

Holy change is not instantaneous in us, but is already happening, and we’ll recognize it in ourselves when we symbolically plant trees and bury hatchets, when we look with love on our enemies and recognize that we have a part in shaping the Reign of God in our midst.

In our own religious language, the Reign of God happens when human conflict and misunderstanding are resolved into lasting peace and love. We don’t really talk enough about the Reign of God. Believers are prone to relegate it to some distant time. But the Reign of God, as Jesus would teach, is already here but not yet complete. The Reign of God becomes more true and real when we work toward life-giving change in our world. Fullness of life for all.

In faith, in this new time, let us encourage one another with words like these…

            Move on.
            Move over.
            Hand over.
            Hang on.
            Change when you are stagnant.
            Be pregnant with meaning.
            Partner with one another to accomplish the good.
            Let truth resonate in you.
            Don’t be afraid.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, January 15, 2021

Doing Our Part for the Common Good

Dear Friends,

On Wednesday January 6, the traditional feast of the Epiphany, we witnessed in horror together the insurrection at our national Capitol. We were, as a people, stunned at what we saw and heard. Videos amassed from that day continue to haunt our tv viewing. And the impeachment of President Donald Trump on Wednesday, January 13 only adds to American misery.

For the foreseeable future, masterful teachers and analysts will be going over every inch of what happened that day to reveal the truth about ourselves, our leaders, our very way of life. This search for truth is not new in human history. Long before Jesus, people looked at the chaos and destruction foisted on one society by other members of that society. In these Christian centuries, the work of rebuilding nations has continued, and each of us has a part to play.

Jesus, in John’s Gospel, tells us unequivocally: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8.32). But truth needs to be pursued, recognized, welcomed, and internalized. Later in John, Jesus comes face to face with Pilate who flings at Jesus the question that continues to haunt us: “What is truth?”

In the search for truth and integrity, today’s American citizens – you and I included – are called to a new articulation of what matters most in life: the appreciation of people of all colors, men, and women alike, the common good. “Do no evil” is our bottom line. We can’t leave our future to elected leaders alone. We need to do our share.

To do this, we need to rethink and re-form our lives. Ron Rolheiser, in his book, Sacred Fire, offers a series of invitations that work in the light of our recent national experience if we let them. Practice these alone or with others and see.

  • Be willing to carry more and more of life’s complexities with empathy.
  • Transform jealousy, anger, bitterness and hatred rather than give them back in kind.
  • Let suffering soften your heart rather than harden your soul. 
  • Forgive – those who hurt you, your own sins, the unfairness of your life, and God for not rescuing you.
  • Bless more and curse less!
  • Pray.
  • Be wide in your embrace.
  • Stand where you are supposed to be standing, and let God provide the rest.

The work before us is reconciliation, transformation and a fresh regard for building the common good. Jesus also says in John (14.6): “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Now is the time to let go of falsehood and walk together in this new and life-giving way. As Mary Oliver puts it, “It is a serious thing just to be alive this fresh morning in a broken world.”

~ Sister Joan Sobala