In Defense of Thoughts and Prayers
Don’t get me wrong, I’m as weary and disheartened by the phrase as the rest of you. In the wake of the latest tragedy, though, it seems I hear it most in the aftermath of the ongoing chapters of our mass-shootings. Someone invariably steps to a podium, gathers all the air in front of a camera and offers “thoughts and prayers” for the victims.
Most of the world groans, again. My guess is that God groans, too. No action. Just “thoughts and prayers.”
The phrase is indicative of where we are these days, with our civility and with our religion. “Thoughts and prayers” are easier to offer than change. We’d have to look within our own hearts to change anything. We’d have to consider actual forgiveness, real reconciliation. We might have to confess fault or admit complicity. We’d actually have to talk to one another to change anything.
We may see some of that change in small, personal matters, but as far as our civility goes, well, it’s about gone. (Civility is from “civil: of or relating to citizens… to matters within a country… to the regular business of government”) We haven’t enough civility these days to contemplate the hard work that leads to meaningful change, so “thoughts and prayers” is the best we can do.
And, where did we get the religious notion that God’s going to stop the chaos if we’re not willing to change our gun laws, or build better levees, or put more money into education – not to mention to change our own hearts?
Prayer isn’t something we do to keep from having to do anything else.
St. Augustine said, “Pray as if everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on you,” which may just be another way to say, if you’re not going to work then don’t waste your time “praying” either. Prayer isn’t asking God to do what we’re not willing to try. If we’re not willing to try, then “Thoughts and prayers” won’t change a thing.
But, thoughts and prayers may be the only hope of actually changing the world.
Years ago we added an Intercessory Prayer to the order of our service of worship, and we were excoriated by an old, ex-minister, whose intellect had painted his faith into the corner. One of the first times we offered such a prayer, a hurricane had just devastated Haiti, and he railed, “What do you think God is gonna to do in Haiti!?”
I understood his point. If praying for Haiti lets us off the hook so we can just read the news, say a prayer, go back to comfort-as-usual, we probably shouldn’t have said the prayer to begin with. But isn’t there an alternative?
What if I cannot go to work in Haiti, but my prayers for a devastated people won’t let me get them out of my thoughts? Maybe I’ll be motivated to write a check. Maybe I’ll be moved to gather supplies and invite my friends to join me in supporting the efforts of a mission that does have a presence in Haiti. Maybe I’ll be convicted enough to call my local congressional representative to ask what aid our government is providing – and to demand that we do more.
Wouldn’t that be better than not going and not thinking and praying for Haiti?
Quantum physicists seem convinced the whole, infinite universe is connected by a seamless web of energy, and they keep looking for that one, beautiful equation to prove just that. So, the preacher in me just has to ask: At their most fundamental level, aren’t prayers just the energy of my thoughts, literal waves of brain energy tuned toward (connected to?)… Haiti?
I don’t pray believing that my prayers are magical incantations holding the power to make God change the world. (But, who knows how the energy of thoughts and prayers might actually be connected to this mysterious universe.) But I do pray. I pray because I know prayer holds great power: power to calm, to center, to attune, power to filter out the chaos of all the chaos, so I can focus my attention on what really matters.
I have a friend who likes to say, “I’ll be praying with you in my thoughts.” I think he means: as I think about you, that remembrance is a way of inviting God into my concern for you. And, as my prayer for you, my thoughts will invite me to contemplate action – for you, with you, on your behalf.
Yes, I’m sick and tired of “thoughts and prayers.” But, thinking and praying… isn’t that how we change the world?
(Dr. Russ Dean is a graduate of Clinton High School. He and his wife, Rev. Amy Jacks Dean, also a CHS graduate, are co-pastors of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte.)