Invitation to Festivus

Job opened his mouth and cursed his day.
Job spoke out and said:
“Perish the day on which I was born,
the night when they said, ‘The child is a boy!’
Why did I not perish at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?”—Job 3:1-3

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One of the prime tactics of the Opposition Voice is what I call an “Invitation to Festivus.”  Festivus was initially a holiday invented by a character on the comedy sitcom Seinfeld to celebrate the “airing of grievances.”  The idea became so popular that it was taken on in real life and now has formal recognition and its own date, December 23rd, where it is billed as an “anti-Christmas.”  While it is celebrated for the most part as a joke, and to be enjoyed as such, actual Opposition Voice invitations are another matter. It is particularly fitting that these invitations be recognized as in opposition to the gifts and joy that Christ brings.

These invitations have a way of arriving when I am about to begin a worthwhile activity, or even more frequently, when I sit down to pray.  As I try to quiet myself, provocations for anger rise to the surface.  Wrongs in the world, wrongs in my life, people that have failed me or failed at what I think they should be.  “Someone is wrong on the internet” and so my mind starts composing a long letter-to-the-editor rebuttal.  “Someone did me wrong” and my mind conjures up vivid, detailed video footage of the event and every word that was said, or that should have been.

Recently it was a woman who rather outrageously and falsely accused me of doing something wrong.  I was in this particular case quite innocent, and while the matter itself was paltry and insignificant, her words continued to smolder in my mind.  I do not always receive just criticism with grace, but false accusations, even minor ones, invite my ego to a duel onto death.  My face grows hot as the resentment burns to a dangerous level.  Instead of defending myself at the time however, I simply said, rather too quietly “That’s not true” and we awkwardly ended the conversation.

But the furnace has been stoked and the fire continues to rage, as my mind thinks of all the things I could and should have said.  Some eloquent if lengthy depositions in my defense; some could be summed up in four letters.

We’ve all been there.  And that’s the problem—I was there—more than twenty-eight years ago.  This is not a new or recent grievance; it is one conjured up from a stash of hoarded unpleasant memories that were never properly put in the trash.

The self-pity party, with help from my imagination, has been upgraded to a gala.  And then a new guest of honor comes crashing in: Shame.  What is wrong with you?  Why are you so insecure that you are bothered by decades-old criticism?  Why couldn’t you have spoken up for yourself—why are you always such a coward?  Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

How to respond?

The first line of defense is to recognize that most of these invitations are junk mail and require no response at all.  Simply tear them up and put them in the paper trash.  Many of these grievances disappear as soon as they are acknowledged as temptations or distractions.

Second—if that doesn’t work, and it seems to come with a message that requires something more, speak God’s love into it.  In the scenario above, this would take the form of forgiveness:  forgiving the woman who judged me unfairly, and then forgiving myself for a) my weakness at the time and b) my weaknesses now, in the recalling.  Maybe even going a step further and saying “I love you!” by name to BOTH parties.  I realize this sounds remarkably cheesy, but the fact that in practice it is so difficult to do suggests it may be more helpful than we realize.

Third—sometimes God lets us know that this has come to signal something a little more serious, and we are invited to look at what the invitation is really about.  Why does it bother me?  Is there an underlying wound that God wants to heal?

If this wound is not apparent, we should not worry about digging it up.  Sometimes, however, God is allowing it to rise to the surface because it is time to bring it to light and to heal it.  If that is the case, let this be a subject for your prayer time!

It is never helpful to attend a party hosted by the Opposition.  But God Himself loves to hear whatever is on our mind, and He is happy to let us air our grievances to Him in all of their rancor and bitterness.  Let Him be the host.  When He does, there is always a gift exchange, with God being the more generous giver!

Appointment With God

Jesus departed to the mountain to pray,
and He spent the night in prayer to God.
–Luke 6:12

There is nobody on this planet that would accuse me of being a neat freak.  And yet, when I sit down for prayer time, my desire for tidiness goes suddenly and inexplicably into overdrive.

I notice the picture that is hanging ever so slightly unevenly, begging to be straightened before I start.  I notice the pile of papers on my desk, and have an immediate urge to address or file them.  I see the basket of laundry and remember that I must apply stain remover to that one shirt, and if I don’t do it right now surely it will be ruined forever.  The books on my shelf are crooked, acquiring dust, need to be read, need to be given away—that would be a good one for Susie—maybe before I begin to pray I should call her?  Maybe I should make my bed.  Maybe I should get in my bed, because did I really get enough sleep last night?

And when all else fails, as I begin to pray while looking out at the morning sky, I will see a small shadow moving across the window, as yet another stink bug compels extermination…

Anyone that has ever tried to put a toddler to bed will recognize these for what they are: diversion tactics.  Whether natural or preternatural, resistance to these and any other delays is the first step to prayer.

The truth is, the Opposition will use any strategy that works to get us not to pray, or to delay prayer until a “later” that he knows may never come.  It is imperative to resist these temptations, but to do so we must recognize them as such.

*You don’t have time to pray!  You are too busy.  It’s not like you’re a cloistered nun—you have a life.  Don’t worry, God understands.  Your work is your prayer…

*Daily prayer is not realistic.  God asks too much of you.  You ask too much of yourself…

*Yeah, you should pray of course, but better to get to Confession first.  You’re not in a good place to meet God at the moment, are you?

*You aren’t very good at prayer.  When’s the last time you heard God talking to you?  You’re not like those other people who talk to God like they know Him or something…

*You don’t know how to pray.  Why waste your time on something that you won’t get anything much out of?

*You can pray later, when you’re not so busy or distracted; when you don’t have so much on your plate…

*How do you know God is listening to you? Is He even there? If He is real, why doesn’t He do X?  Why does He allow Y?  How can you talk with somebody you don’t know for sure is even there?

In today’s Gospel Jesus calls the twelve apostles and heals the crowds, but only after spending the night in prayer.   What did that night look like?   How did the Son of God converse with the Father?  We can only wonder—and marvel that such questions can even be asked of God made Man.

We only know that even Jesus needed prayer, that all of His actions flowed from this union with His Father lived out in prayer.

Reading this gospel, I was reminded of Father Michael Scanlan T.O.R., the former president of my alma mater.   After his passing in January 2017, alumni were invited to offer tributes and share memories related to his legacy in their lives.  At first I thought I had little to say.  While I am no doubt indebted to him for my college experience which set a trajectory for my life, my personal encounters with him were few and not the sort that great stories are made of.

Yet much is made in Christian life of the notion of planting seeds—how often that is what we as educators are called to, even when we do not see for years any visible signs of growth or fruit.   I think of myself often as a seed planter (at least on days when I am feeling optimistic) but I forget at times of how much I am the recipient of the seeds of other sowers.  One such sower was Fr. Mike, and the particular seed was his book Appointment with God.

The funny thing is, I am not sure if I ever actually read the book.  My memory is rather foggy on that point.  But the idea of a daily appointment with God, a designated prayer time, was spoken of frequently at FUS and modeled for me by many of my fellow students.  His idea was simple—a guarded time set aside each day, put onto the calendar and thereby not to be moved, to meet with God in conversation, ideally before the rest of the day and its concerns came rushing in to fill the time.

I loved the idea of it from the beginning.  But faithful practice of it was decades away, as I made what I realize in retrospect were flimsy excuses.

Years later, as I started to become more faithful to times of prayer, I began to experience God’s love in new ways.  Sometimes I had experiences of His presence during prayer; more often I began to recognize His presence outside of prayer.  Flashes of understanding.  Conversations that confirmed something I thought God was saying.  Snatches of song in the grocery store with their secular lyrics—that were not only poignant echoes of God’s love, but even prophetic at times.  The more I made time for God to speak to me during prayer, the more I heard His voice in unexpected places.