Something finally broke over the last couple of days. And, as far as I’m concerned, it is about time.
In the aftermath of the latest mass shooting, which led to the death of 14 in San Bernadino in California, people began responding, as they often do, by sending out their “thoughts and prayers.” It is, I would suggest, a common and generally positive response to events that are tragic and largely outside of our control. We feel so powerless in the face of tragedy and the impulse is to want to do something about it. Often enough, prayer and positive thoughts are the only things that we feel able to do.
But this time there was a strong twitter reaction against the response as people began to tweet out criticisms that sought to shame those making such statements with the hashtag #thoughtsandprayers. The criticism and shaming was not directed (at least not for the most part) towards people who were truly powerless to do anything except pray about it, but in particular at people like politicians who have had many opportunities to make changes in how things are done but have resisted doing anything. In other words, they have changed nothing and done nothing but pray and it is time to point out that such a strategy is not fixing anything. It is, as the headline on the Daily News has proclaimed:
Ats a leader in a Christian church, I have often used the phrase, “My thoughts and prayers are with you.” I have often let people who are going through some crisis know of the thoughts and prayers of the congregation and I have led the congregation in prayer in the face of various tragedies over the years. I do believe that this is an important thing to do and to say.
I never say it lightly. I always do make a point of actually praying for those people. I also think that doing so matters.
It matters to them. It matters that they know that they are not alone in facing whatever they are facing — that there are people who are sympathetic and empathetic, that there are people who care. Just knowing that you are being supported in this way can certainly help to improve outcomes. I happen to also believe that it matters to them because God answers prayers. God doesn’t always answer prayers in the ways that we want or desire or expect. We may not like God’s answers sometimes. But I have seen God’s presence with people in various ways as they have gone through tragedy. It has mattered.
It also matters to me — a lot. I have faced many problems and intractable difficulties in my work as a minister. I have felt overwhelmed by them far too often. Prayer has been an invaluable resource to me. It works like this:
When I am faced with a problem that seems overwhelming, I do what I can about it. I make use of what talents and skills are at my disposal. I call on assistance from people who may have talents and skills that are unavailable to me. I put the time and energy into the problem that I am able to put into it given all of my other priorities and limitations. But, often, having done all of that, I still feel overwhelmed and can be filled with anxiety and fear.
That is when I especially need to pray. I need to tell God that I have taken on as much weight in this issue as I can. I need to tell God that my shoulders are full and I cannot bear it any more. I need to tell God to take the weight from me. This is an extremely freeing prayer. It is not freeing in the sense that I don’t need to act any more, but it is certainly a way of freeing me from anxiety. If I couldn’t do that, I know that I couldn’t continue in the work that I do.
But if all I was doing in the face of problems and tragedies was jumping to that prayer without even considering what I can and need to do about the situation, I believe that God would and should rebuke me.
Perhaps the hashtag #thoughtsandprayers is God’s rebuke to some.
It is not, as the old saying goes, that “God helps those who helps themselves.” That is not true. God’s actions are always gracefilled.
What it is is this: Prayer is a dangerous activity. When you ask God for somethings — something that you claim to be passionate about — God says, “Great. I am glad to hear your passion for this. So, if you are so passionate, what are you doing about it.”
If the answer is nothing (especially if it is your power to do something), God might well wonder if you are passionate at all. Why would God answer a prayer like that?