Some thoughts on ‘thoughts and prayers’

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

For some reason, I was struck by Trump’s comments following the horrifying shooting in Las Vegas that “our thoughts and prayers are with you”.

Part of the reason it struck me so forcefully is that the words sounded false on Trump’s lips. He has shown himself to be a man whose “thoughts and prayers” are only for himself. He has no conscience, and he spares no charitable thoughts for anyone other than himself and his immediate family.

In the light of that, I offer these brief thoughts on “thoughts and prayers.”

1. Don’t say you’re praying unless you actually are.

Too often the phrase “thoughts and prayers” is used as a generic, spiritually vacuous PR gesture. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just do what you say you’re doing. If you say “thoughts and prayers,” then actually pray. Talk to God. And if you’re not going to talk to God, then say something different.

2. Prayer does not mean you’re taking a higher moral ground than political advocacy.

Some people interpret “prayer” as if praying were somehow a better thing to do than engaging in political advocacy. It’s not. To say you’re praying doesn’t make anyone more high–minded than those who are working within the political system to deal with such urgent issues as gun control or racism or terrorism or health care or education. Political advocacy is equally important as prayer, and is of as much value as prayer.

3. Prayer should not be shamed or ridiculed.

This is the other side of Point 2. Other people than those described above denounce prayer in general as a useless activity. Atheists and some progressives will tell you that political advocacy is the most effective way of working for social change. They tend to see prayer as an innately bankrupt and farcical spiritual gesture.

I disagree. People of all religions have used prayer powerfully as a catalyst for their movements of social transformation. One of the most powerful prayers I’ve ever seen is when the people of Gaza carried coffins of their children in the street shouting “Allah akbah!” (God is good) in defiance after they had been bombed by the Israelis. We also saw it in the movement spearheaded by Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached and prayed powerfully in public, and effected massive social change in the struggle in the USA for civil rights.

Though I’m certainly biased, I would argue that social movements that are supported by prayer have more staying power than strictly secular movements.

4. Prayer is primarily about the transformation of the one who is praying.

Yes, it is valid to ask God to bring comfort and love to the victims of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. But the primary purpose of prayer is to tune myself into the Holy Spirit so that God can transform me and use me to transform the world around me. Prayer is not an alternative to taking action; it is an important means by which God prepares me to take action. If I think I have nothing to do after I’ve prayed, then I need to go back and pray again.

Partly what that means for me is that we don’t pray for God to change the world, or to change natural processes, or to change the way life works. What it means is that we pray for God to change us, and to use us to effect change in the world.

5. God doesn’t honor disingenuous prayer.

One of the harshest verses in the Bible is Isaiah 1:15: “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”

Isaiah echoes other prophets in this passage when he calls the people to live with justice and compassion. Praying without being willing to live justly is an offense to God. That’s true of us as individuals. It is even more true of us as a community.

One of the basic insights of both Judaism and Christianity is that we live in community. These days, we are trained to think in individualistic ways. But when Isaiah says “your hands are full of blood,” he’s talking to all of us. We have each contributed in our own way to the culture of death in North America just as Isaiah was talking to all of ancient Israel in the seventh century BC.

Isaiah exhorts us all: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

Pray. Indeed, pray for all you’re worth. But if you’re not a praying kind of person, then don’t say it. Think of others. Engage in political advocacy. Vote. Demonstrate. These are all worthwhile and important activities in a democracy.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook