Large chunks of Nebraska, Iowa are under water. We offer our thoughts and prayers. The people of New Zealand are still reeling in the wake of a mass murder of Muslim citizens by a hate-filled man who held to the evil, blasphemous ideas of white supremacy. We offer our thoughts and prayers. As a congregation, we are preparing to lay to rest two members of the community and we offer their families and loved ones our thoughts and prayers.
Some condemn offering “thoughts and prayers” as wishful thinking, others as a way to avoid actually doing something about a problem. Even pastors and religious leaders have been suspicious of offering “thoughts and prayers” in the face of school shootings, natural disasters and the chaos of each day.
It is true that we often offer “thoughts and prayers” when we don’t know what else to say, maybe even with no intention of actually praying. That’s really a lie, not a prayer. We may offer up a quick, “Lord, help them” or a “thank God I’m not having to face that struggle” and call it good. I call that a “drive-by” prayer. I am guilty of such prayer more often than I like to admit, I think.
Sometimes, a situation is just flat-out horrible or painful and we have no power to do a thing about it. So, we offer “thoughts and prayers.” Maybe because we desperately want to do something – anything – so we can not feel so helpless. But maybe, just maybe, it’s because when we feel helpless we appeal to a God who can do what we can’t. When “thoughts and prayers” are condemned for expressing helplessness, I tend to think that it is precisely what we should be doing.
When “thoughts and prayers” are dismissed as meaningless, I think it is because most of us misunderstand prayer — even pastors and the pious. Thinking that God and Amazon have much in common (they don’t) we make our order and then complain about the service when our wise request is not delivered as ordered. We end up thinking like author Nicholas Sparks, in Three Weeks With My Brother “I don’t pray because it doesn’t work. Prayer doesn’t fix anything. Bad things happen anyway.” Bitterness and unbelief follow. When I find myself annoyed by yet another offer of “thoughts and prayers” I have to ask myself if somehow I have lost faith in a God who answers them – somehow, someway.
If we think that offering prayer is mostly about changing, cajoling, or manipulating God to pay attention to something we think that the Ground of All Being and Existence has somehow missed, then we have misunderstood the purpose of prayer and our relationship to God. Prayer is not a magical ritual that brings about miracles. It is certainly far more than making myself feel pious or better about things.
Soren Kierkegaard said, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” When I say, “I will pray for you,” what I should be offering is to enter God’s presence with you and your struggles on my heart and on my lips; to open myself to care for you as God does. Prayer for another should never be done without a great deal of seriousness, for in prayer – true prayer – God will call, challenge and change us to be the answer to prayer. Eugene Peterson says it this way: “The task is not to get God to do something I think needs done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that I can participate in it.”
Ultimately, prayer is not words, but silence. Yes, we have prayers that we say, all the time. Jesus gave his disciples (and us) the Lord’s Prayer, which is certainly words. Yet, the purpose of the words is to place us in God’s presence with God’s will and desire in our hearts. Jesus prayed that the cup of crucifixion be taken from him, but then centered himself squarely in God’s will. The words point us to a silence that opens up to God’s presence for God’s sake alone. Eugene Peterson says it this way: “Prayer is the way we work our way out of the comfortable but cramped world of self and into the spacious world of God.”
“Thoughts and prayers” understood as a movement into the presence of God with an open heart, mind, and agenda is to allow that open places to be filled with God. It is not impotent, nor does it replace action. It leads to it. No action of ours can be grounded in God without prayer. Peterson again: A changed world begins with us … and a changed us begins when we pray.
“Thoughts and prayers” offered in the experience of helplessness, to establish a connection with others who suffer, done in the manner and name of Christ, transforms us. “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” ―
Pax Christi – Pastor Tim Olson
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